Song of the Earth

by Hugh Nissenson

Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill



 

 

 

 

 

 

"One of the things that I felt I wanted to do as an artist was to expand the frontiers of my imagination as much as I could; to follow wherever my imaginative facility took me, and to create alternate worlds. I believe deeply that one of the reasons that we get a kick out of reading novels -- for that matter going to the movies -- is that it plunges us instantaneously into an alternate reality."

 

 

 

 

To an astonishing degree, Hugh Nissenson has covered a range and scope that puts his writing in a very special, rarefied category. Israel -- in fiction and fact -- the Lower East Side, the American frontier, the imagined latter half of the 21st century, contemporary New York City -- all have come under his incisive scrutiny.

Perhaps the single most salient quote from my talk with Hugh Nissenson was a quote from the poet Hopkins: "spare, original, and strange." To an astonishing degree, Hugh Nissenson has limned the broadest range of forms, themes, and loci. It is a body of work that can be spare, is often strange -- and always very original.

Nissenson covered the historic trial in Israel of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann in 1961. His longstanding interest in the Jewish state led to Notes from the Frontier, his account of time spent on an Israeli kibbutz near the Syrian border from 1965 to 1967: the era of fortress Israel. Two collections of short stories followed: A Pile of Stones and In the Reign of Peace (featuring, with "The Throne of Good" and "The Law", eerie, demonic renderings of the Holocaust). The mid-1970s yielded a novel, the exotic, gritty My Own Ground, set in the Lower East Side of 90 years ago, and anything but a conventional portrait. Jake, the 15-year-old orphan protagonist, is far from plucky or endearing, and the Lower East Side itself is a deadly, perilous trap -- alive and menacing.

Nissenson shifted focus with The Tree of Life, set on the Ohio frontier in the early 19th century, via the diary and drawings of one Thomas Keene, a dissolute, transplanted New England preacher. Nissenson's intensive author preparation in this case is worthy of its own book. The Song of the Earth (2001) was an iconoclastic, hybrid journey into the future shock of the year 2057. The account of genetically engineered artist John Firth Baker's short life and early death, the book was profusely illustrated, with Nissenson offering up the beautifully rendered, surreal and disturbing art of John Firth Baker -- including color plates ("A Message for the Living From the Dead, 2057"). A concise, elegant Nissenson compendium can be found in The Elephant and My Jewish Problem (1988), featuring the chronicle of the Eichmann trial, some new writing, short stories, and a condensed Notes from the Frontier -- with an intriguing follow-up of 20 years later.

I talked with Nissenson at his Manhattan apartment, on the eve of the Jewish new year. It is a two-writer household; spouse Marilyn Nissenson has her own published output as well as a forthcoming biography. As would be expected from a writer of such range, the conversation ranged from modernism, T.S. Eliot, Israel, Leon Trotsky, paganism -- and what it means to be a writer.

 

Richard Klin: If I remember correctly, you got your start as a copy editor for the New York Times.

Hugh Nissenson: I was not actually a copy editor -- I was a copy boy, out of college, for the New York Times. It was very seductive. I liked it very much, and I was working at the lowest rung of the ladder, with a group of distinguished journalists and extremely talented men. I worked nights and I came home one night and the next morning I said to my mother that I was in a dilemma because they had offered me a raise in position. I think it was then called -- I can't remember, it's so long ago -- the secretary to the national desk, because I had done well; I was working very hard. And I enjoyed it -- I thought it was really a wonderful place to work.

She said: What is the dilemma? And I said: Well, the prose that these guys were writing was not the kind of the prose that I wanted to write. I wanted to write fiction; I wanted to be an artist. She said to me: Well... -- I was in my early 20s; I must have been 23 ... something like that, 24, 23, because the next year I got my first writing job -- she said: "Live at home ... and learn how to write -- by writing! ... because if you don't do it, you're going to spend the rest of your life sorry ... that you didn't take this opportunity when you were young to try to become what you really dream of becoming."

So I was grateful for the offer of living at home and I did so, and I got up every morning and I started writing short stories, learning how to write short stories -- by writing short stories. None of them were any good, but I was learning. And then by chance -- just by chance -- I got a job writing a film in Israel. I won't go into the circumstances of this but it just fell into my lap. I wrote a story for a guy who raised money on it, and I went off to Israel at the age of 24, where I spent two years -- part of which writing and acting in, and going on location with this movie, which as my agent subsequently said was not the worst movie ever made -- but probably the worst movie ever released! But I leaned a tremendous amount.

I was there for two years, living and writing, and it was there that I wrote my first publishable story. And it gave me the milieu -- Israel, the Jews -- the metaphor that I mined subsequently all through my 20s and 30s. It gave me the sense of what I wanted to write about. At first I thought I was just a short-story writer. I was fascinated by the form of the short story -- I'm fascinated by form, by the problems of form in fiction. It's a thing that preoccupies me deeply. And I was fascinated by the problems -- the formal problems -- of the short story, and then I wrote in my late 20s or early 30s, a book -- a full-length book -- which was an account of an experience that I had in the summer of 65 and during the Six Day War on an Israeli kibbutz.


Notes from the Frontier.

Notes from the Frontier. I structured that thematically, and I put together a dramatic whole, a unified whole, and I used leitmotiv and I used all the techniques that I would subsequently develop in my novels. And then I guess I wrote another volume of short stories, and then I conceived of the idea -- when I was 39 or 40 -- of my first novel, which is My Own Ground. It took me two years and nine months to write that novel, and it was the last novel that I wrote that was formally conventional.

I had always been interested in innovating in the form of the novel. I grew up and was intellectually educated -- educated at college -- with modernism as my ideal. And so I read the great modernists, and I accepted the aesthetic promise that what one did if one was a serious contemporary artist, or a modern artist, was to do something innovative with the form that you inherited. And it became a fascinating preoccupation.

In the course of writing my next novel, The Tree of Life, which took seven years, I saw two things that I was absolutely possessed by in doing. One was, I became fascinated by the idea of integrating -- if I could -- pictorial elements: drawings that I made, poetry that I wrote, and the narrative prose. Using the three as narrative elements in the development of a novel. And I got stuck on this conception. I finished The Tree of Life, which was a very difficult book to write because when I began I knew nothing about the American frontier experience, and it took three, four years just doing research.

You actually went to the Ohio frontier.

Oh, yes. I spent a lot of time in Ohio, and I became friends with a brilliant Ohio historian by the name of Don Hutslar, to whom I dedicated the book, who was the head of the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus at that time, a wonderful man, I got to know him and his family. I went out and I learned to fire replicas of flintlock rifles, to throw a tomahawk; I went on a hunt. I spent time in the winter in the northern part of Ohio, I walked on snowshoes, I dressed in buckskin. I felt that in order for me to re-create this experience, which was so alien to me, a New York Jewish kid, educated on the West Side of Manhattan, that I really had to deeply understand in a physical and an imaginative way, what the experience was like living under those circumstances on the Ohio frontier in 1812. I also broke with the traditional form of a novel, insofar that I utilized a legered diary as the foundation of the book.

Your writing contains a really startling eclecticism. The only immediate comparison I can think of is Stanley Kubrick, who's obviously not a writer. You've covered the 1961 Eichmann trial in Israel. Notes from the Frontier, as you've mentioned, is a chronicle of life on an Israeli kibbutz, around and up to the 1967 Six Day War. My Own Ground is set on the Lower East Side in 1912, The Tree of Life on the Ohio frontier around 1812 -- a hundred years' difference, and The Song of the Earth takes us up to the 2050s. How intentional has this been for you?

It has been deliberately intentional. One of the things that I felt I wanted to do as an artist was to expand the frontiers of my imagination as much as I could; to follow wherever my imaginative facility took me, and to create alternate worlds. I believe deeply that one of the reasons that we get a kick out of reading novels -- for that matter going to the movies -- is that it plunges us instantaneously into an alternate reality.

One of the things I love about good novelists is that they take you and they bring you into an alternative reality; something that you yourself have not experienced and you only experience imaginatively through the objectification of words, through the use of language. This is one of the thrilling things .... Also, I wanted to go ahead -- as I said -- to expand my own horizons.

What is consistent in my work is thematic material. The themes remain the same, but the metaphors that objectify these themes have changed utterly over the years. My objective has been also, quite frankly, in addition to trying to evolve, to push the form of the novel in ways that are new -- and writers don't talk about it -- but I wanted to make beautiful things. I really feel compelled to make beautiful things, beautiful artifacts, out of my words. I believe deeply -- this is what gives me the most satisfaction, and I've pulled it off once or twice, I have three or four short stories, which by my own lights had beauty and I think are among the best stories written about Israel in the 20th century. There are a couple of stories in there that really have beauty.

"The Throne of Good" is one of the most amazing stories I've ever read about the Holocaust.

Thanks! There are two or three others.... And some of the journals that I've kept over the years -- they have, what I would say, beauty. They give you the appearance -- the impression -- of something, which as Hopkins said, is: Spare, original and strange. And I think that my best work is characterized by being spare, original and strange.

Absolutely.

And there's nobody else -- no other of my contemporary Americans -- is as interested in transforming the form of the novel -- the formal conventions of the novel -- as I am. Most of my distinguished colleagues -- and there are many, many immensely gifted colleagues -- are content, generally speaking, to work within the conventional forms of a novel. And there's no right or wrong to it. There are some great conventional novelists of say the last century whom I admire immensely -- Graham Greene, or Isaac Bashevis Singer -- people who are not interested in interpreting the novel in new ways. Just as they are great and innovative novelists -- as I say, it's not a moral issue, it's just your predilection; your individual predilection, to do with what you will to the form that you've inherited as an artist within a specific medium.

Your work does sound -- at a cursory glance -- like almost boilerplate genre, and then it really turns any codified format on its head. You start off with what's ostensibly conventional. My Own Ground: a 15-year-old orphan in New York City, but there's an eerie, exotic, menacing quality. It's not a poor-Jewish-boy-orphan story. The Tree of Life -- it's such a well-developed trope: the American frontier. But the novel is a real genre-buster. Same with The Song of the Earth -- it's a real hybrid. You start with what looks like is going to be a format, and then something different happens.

And that's what gives me the greatest satisfaction. That pursuit of beauty and originality -- or the attempt to create something beautiful and original -- is what I've dedicated my life to, and gives me -- as I say -- the greatest feeling of satisfaction. And the greatest feeling of, in Jung's term, "individuation." It differentiates me from other writers, which is very nice.

You pay a price for it. I have never written anything which is particularly popular ... but that's one of the prices you pay for following your own particular predilection. My individual concern -- from whence it comes I can only guess -- of integrating pictorial elements and poems and narrative prose into a cohesive whole, is something that has just taken hold of me.
I noticed that now I am writing my first novel about contemporary New York, and it is again a novel which is -- I'm a religious novelist; I mean, all of my work, one way or the other, has to do with the major themes of religion: What are we, is there a god, what is our relationship to this god. The religious impulse is something that has interested me all of my life.

Cynthia Ozick once said: Hugh, you're not an atheist, but somebody who's made a religion out of atheism! It's a metaphor for you. And in many ways that's true. I am fascinated by the mythic and religious impulse. All of my work is permeated by myth. The first novel [My Own Ground] is a retelling of the story of Jacob and Esau. The second novel [The Tree of Life] has the mythic elements of the frontier, personified by Johnny Appleseed. The Song of the Earth, which took me 12 years to do -- 12 years! I had 47 illustrations; when I realized about halfway in what I was doing I was stuck! I couldn't believe what I'd gotten into! I figured seven years alone on The Tree of Life; The Tree of Life took seven years because of three or four years of research, and in a year of doing the five illustrations, because I didn't know what I was doing. I was learning how to illustrate. I had never had any formal artistic training, so I was really literally teaching myself on the job. And then I got into The Song of the Earth -- I figured at first I'd have to do ten illustrations, and then I began realizing the only way to tell the story of an artist is to tell the story of an artist through his work. So 47 illustrations later I told the story of John Firth Baker.

What comes first? Does the concept for the illustration come first?

Well ... in The Tree of Life the illustrations came when I was about a third of the way through. I was very interested in the diaries of a Protestant divine by the name of Jonathan Fisher, who had a congregation in Maine. He graduated Harvard around the late 18th, early 19th century. And I ran across his journals, and I learned that he not only wrote prose, but illustrated the journal profusely with drawings of the natural world around him. They were all amateur naturalists; natural philosophers; these people were extraordinarily educated intellectuals. But he wrote poetry -- the poetry wasn't very good, but he wrote poetry. And then it occurred to me to utilize the poetry of my narrative -- the drawings of my narrative, and the prose of my narrative -- in a book. And to try and bring all these elements together in something new -- no one has ever done that before.

I finished the book and I was still obsessed by the idea because I felt that I hadn't developed it fully enough. So that idea preceded the idea for the form of The Song of the Earth. I knew that I had to go on integrating these three things. I was possessed by the idea and I knew -- one of the things that I've learned about myself is that if I get an idea about something in terms of my work: follow that idea. There's no sense in trying to do it any other way. Just follow the idea. Because it's the only salvation, it's the only way that I can work. Then, as I said, I found myself in the middle of 47 illustrations and a whole cycle of poems.

I think that The Tree of Life has five, six, seven -- I can't remember how many poems -- but The Song of the Earth is filled with verse and one of the things that I take pride in is that episodically my prose seems simply to burst into verse. Verse simply erupts into the prose. And this gives me pleasure because it's something different. And one of the things you want to do -- it seems to me -- is something that will engage the reader's attention and imagination. Something that's different. Something that they're not expecting. Something that is not conventional. I feel very deeply about that. I do believe that we are as novelists -- my contemporaries -- in competition, quite rightly! -- with the movies and television. Which is to say, we are presented -- all of us -- with works that bombard us with a series of juxtaposed images -- visual images -- they have no transitions; they have less and less transitions. What's going on with jump-cutting now is unbelievable. You take a look at MTV or go to a movie, and what people accept is unbelievable! And this has busted up, for me, the traditional narrative format, to take this and apply this to the novel. It's not the first time in contemporary or in modern literature that this has happened.

The cornerstone, for me, is the publication in 1922, I guess it was, of The Waste Land, where suddenly, for the first time a poem is composed very cinemagraphically, where you have chunks of dialogue, you have little dramatic scenes juxtaposed to each other, you have bits of poetry; fragments, and the transitions occur not on the page, but in the reader's mind. And this seems to me to be absolutely the cornerstone of modernism. Paul West says -- and I think he's quite right -- that I'm one of the postmodernists -- whatever that means. I mean, I came too late for modernism, but I am a postmodernist, in that I believe again in this idea of something that was promulgated in 1910 by Ezra Pound when he said "make it new." And this interests me -- this is what excites me as a writer. This really turns me on. As the result of my pursuit of this ideal, I have produced relatively very little work. It just takes so damn long for me to do these books! I am -- knock wood -- two-thirds through a novel which I started three years ago. And for me that is phenomenal progress! Very quickly! It is a book, which, by the way, has in it two poems that are essential to its thematic development and one illustration. I'm using digital art for the first time -- I worked with a digital artist, and it was thrilling; absolutely thrilling. So I'm very interested in the problem of integrating these forms into a unified whole, to making them into something different.

There are definitely filmic aspects to your work. It's almost like Method acting to go to the Ohio frontier. And your novels also -- and I can't think of a better term -- never "break character." The world you depict is total. The Tree of Life is peppered with drawings not just by Thomas Keene, but it's "courtesy of the Thomas Keene Collection of Mansfield, Ohio." The Song of the Earth is John Firth's Baker's catalogued art and the book itself has a very elaborate notation system. And there's also a less dramatic, equally effective device at the end of My Own Ground.

You're quite right. The strange thing, it seems to me, about being an artist -- and I use the term proudly -- when people say about my work two things; it makes me happiest. I remember The New Yorker had a brief review of The Tree of Life and whoever it was who reviewed the book said it was a work of art. And I remember that Dan Cryer called The Tree of Life beautiful. And Elizabeth Hand in an interview -- she's a wonderful writer in her own right -- called The Song of the Earth beautiful. These are the things that are most rewarding to me. Because I want to be judged aesthetically. That is the thing that interests me the most. What do you do with this form ... that has been so shaped and treasured and passed on from generation to generation -- since Roman times. You don't get any better than The Golden Ass or even the fragments that we have of The Satyricon. You just don't get any better than that! All the things in the novel that we admire are present at its inception. So one of the things that you are very proud of -- it is like a musician, it would seem to me, inheriting the form of a symphony or a sonata. What the hell do you do with these forms -- in a contemporary situation? And this is the challenge -- what you do with the forms that have been given unto you by other artists? And how you deal with them? And how you put your personal imprint on them? And give people perhaps a slightly different vision of what the novel can be.

How did you prepare for My Own Ground? Did you immerse yourself in the Lower East Side?

I immersed myself. And I found -- very interestingly -- that my father, who grew up on the Lower East Side, who was a man who was uneducated, he left school when he was in the sixth grade, but he had an extraordinary capacity with the American language. He was a very articulate man; he spoke very imaginatively and very pictorially, very visually. And he regaled me, all of my young life, with stories about what it was like growing up on the Lower East Side.

I saw these pictures in my head all my life. When it came time -- although I researched the Lower East Side for the book ... I remember among the books I read was Hutchins Hapgood -- the title of which escapes me; which is a wonderful, sympathetic portrait of the Lower East Side by a WASP intellectual around the turn of the century -- with illustrations by Jacob Epstein. I was interested -- I remember even then -- at the idea of illustrating, and I thought about it and then rejected this; and I remember researching it. But I remember also that when it came time for me to re-create this environment, it was almost as if I saw already in my mind's eye what had to be done. It was a relatively simple universe to construct. It was already there. I had listened to these stories for so many years. So it was a question of -- yes, I read Jacob Riis, who was immensely helpful, but I read a multiplicity of things. I found that it was not that difficult; it did not require the same incredible effort of the imagination as re-creating, for example, the Ohio frontier or the American future -- which totally required immense immersion and imaginative reconstruction.

It's obviously a lot of research -- including things that seem like they can't be researched.

I'll tell you a story. When I began writing The Tree of Life I had a scene which did not find its way into the book, in which two of the characters -- Philip Seymour and Tom Keene -- are fishing by firing their rifles into the water. It was a means of fishing on the frontier; these guys were so good they could shoot into the water and calculate the angle through the deflection of the light; so where to place the ball in order to hit a fish. It was a sport. And I had hitherto immersed myself in the Ohio woods. I mean, I'd spent a week in the Ohio wilds with a game warden. And I was there and there and there reading: agriculture and hunting and scalping Indians!

But I was writing this scene; and in the middle of the scene a chunk of bark from a cottonwood tree -- cottonwood trees grew, I knew, close to water -- a chunk of bark from a cottonwood tree fell into the water, in the course of Phil and Tom firing their rifles. And I heard it fall. And I knew at that moment that I was there! That I had absorbed the milieu so completely that I was hearing the sounds! And it was a thrilling moment, because I said to myself: A-ha! I've arrived! I'm in the Ohio woods. It's happening.

And one of the things that every novelist experiences is that sooner or later in the course of writing this world, creating this world, image by image, word by word -- the world takes over. The characters take over. And things that you never anticipated ... occur. And you write them down! You re-create them! But that was a wonderful story, because I knew I had spent a number of years researching and going out to Ohio and hunting and shooting. I joined a black-powder club in New Jersey -- I had a wonderful time -- I still have the weapons, the flintlock, reproductions --

What is a "black-powder club?"

There are clubs all throughout the United States -- of mostly men -- who fire weapons that are powered by black powder, which is the most primitive -- very volatile and very dangerous -- form of gunpowder. It's black, and extremely volatile, extremely explosive. They use this powder to load their weapons; the weapons were muzzle-loaded; you put the powder down the barrel into the breech. You load it, and then you put the black powder in the pan -- and there are clubs.

I joined one in New Jersey, run by a lovely guy by the name of Charlie Stone, who was a hunter. Men who joined the club fired black-powder weapons -- replicas; they fired contemporary replicas of black-powder weapons. And they had tomahawks; he gave me tomahawk lessons on how to throw a tomahawk, things like that. I literally had the experience -- I had to write a battle scene. What was it like when you fired these weapons? What was the residue in the air? What did they sound like? Well -- I fired the weapons! And I found out that a lot of smoke is generated. And what they sounded like ... and how they cut the weapon -- the ball of lead with a knife in order to make a dumdum bullet. I mean, all of these things which I learned, because I had to incorporate them....

One of things that interested me very much in writing The Tree of Life was the fact that I had to learn to write warfare. The only experience of warfare that I've ever had were the few hours spent on the Syrian front in the Six Day War in 1967. Modern warfare -- it was, God knows, experience enough. It was terrifying and a formative experience in my life. I was disguised as an Israeli soldier -- I was writing the book about the kibbutz and my buddies took me up to the Syrian front [the incident is chronicled in Notes from the Frontier].

It's very gripping.

It was a terrifying and extraordinary experience going up. But I had to write 19th-century warfare. In order to do so ... reading is not sufficient. You must get the kind of details that accrue only from the experience of actually handling, loading, and firing a gun. It just made me feel closer to the scene. So I did that. And one of the things about research is that it always engenders ideas that you could never had anticipated. Never in a million years could you have anticipated, for example, one of the things, one of the major symbolic elements in The Tree of Life is the horned owl, who represents death to the Indians. I had no idea when I began, and then I went out to the Ohio woods and I started talking to a naturalist, and the owl ... sort of seized my imagination and developed into an important image cluster in the book. You never know ahead of time what's going to happen.

When it came time to write The Song of the Earth I was totally, constantly, unexpectedly surprised by elements that I could never have anticipated when I began the book. One of the things I did in that novel -- for the joy of it, the fun of it, to see whether I could do -- was to create a religion. I created Gaianism out of fragments -- of Lovelock's Gaia theory. The Gaia hypothesis is popular among some -- there's a wonderful biologist up in Boston, at MIT, who is convinced that the earth is a unitary organism. I was fascinated by this idea -- fascinated by it. Because it meant, for me, the return of the great goddess into human affairs, into mythic affairs. It was a new incarnation of the great goddess, and because this book is about -- like all my works -- the religious impulse, the mythic impulse, the idea was irresistible to me to reintroduce the great goddess and worship of the great goddess in a new form. I thought that was just fun! It was new ... it was just sort of interesting. There's a challenge to it. And to do the illustrations was even more of a challenge -- these extraordinary androgynous images that I produced, and which reverberate throughout this book.

Your characters often inhabit this very charged political world -- but they themselves don't partake. The Lower East Side, circa 1912, is certainly a hodgepodge of one competing, overlapping, messianic-revolutionary-political movement. Jake even becomes involved with Roman Osipovich, a Russian revolutionary...

He's based on Leon Trotsky.

I didn't know that.

Trotsky was in exile in the Bronx, and that idea struck me to use him as the basis of a character. Stalin also appears in the book as the Bolshevik, who's also in exile. I was just kidding around ... I couldn't resist! I had two Bolsheviks, so I based them on Trotsky and Stalin.

Jake's really an observer -- he doesn't participate. Same with Thomas Keene, in The Tree of Life, who's living through this incredible time of American expansion, slavery, attacks on the native population, war with Great Britain. His politics are very oblique, except when he actually expresses a pro-war position vis-a-vis the War of 1812. Notes from the Frontier is set on an Israeli kibbutz, which is the very essence of socialism, in the socialist-governed Israel of the 60s. The mood there is apolitical -- except when it's scornful. How do you feel about the role of politics in writing -- in your writing?

I am a writer who is -- except by inference -- apolitical. What interests me is not the political impulse to write about. What interests me is the religious impulse, the mythic impulse. And also, increasingly -- interestingly enough -- the artistic impulse. With the creation of The Tree of Life, whose protagonist and narrative is an artist. Thomas Keene is an artist. He's a poet and he's a draftsman and he knows that the prose that he's writing has importance, has beauty. He loves this, and he's a very self-conscious artist. And I began discovering that I was a novelist in that great tradition of modern novelists who are preoccupied also by artists, and by writing about artists. The creative impulse interests me very much.

I grew up -- I cut my eyeteeth -- on Thomas Mann and on Joyce, around Kafka -- The Hunger Artist -- which is extraordinarily powerful on the creative life! These extraordinary masters awakened in me a passionate interest in the inner life of creative people. What is going on? From whence does this come? What does it mean? This impulse to create that human beings have. And more and more I found that my characters were removed from the political scene and more interested in the cultivation of their own aesthetic abilities. So that John Baker is the archetypical artist. In a way that book is a funny book. It has a lot of humor in it. And one of the things it is, is a kind of riff on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Down to -- there's a Christmas sermon in it, which turns out to be a pagan sermon -- but it's a Christmas sermon. The sermon interests me -- sermons permeate my work. T.S. Eliot once said that the indigenous American art forms -- two of them -- was the diary and the sermon. Sermons have always interested me as a means of expression.

Roman Osipovich talks at length about the revolution ... when the revolution comes people's voices will be more melodious.

Yes. That is a book that you quite rightly pointed out that is very much about the various forms of messianism that seize the Jewish people in the 20th century ... and intimates the coming of the Holocaust. And it is a book that ultimately renounces redemption. Just as Tom Keene in The Tree of Life renounces the risen Christ, and just as Johnny Baker renounces Gaianism. They each of them renounce the religious vision which suffuses them and which has influenced them in favor of the aesthetic vision, of pursuing an aesthetic goal.

But Jake finds comfort at the end -- which is very touching.

Jake finds comfort from a dream, a vision -- he is Jacob, and he has rather than the vision, that beautiful dream in the Bible of the ascending and descending angels, the connection between heaven and earth -- my Jake has a dream about the earth, and it's the first appearance, again, of Mother Earth. She appears in the guise of this woman. And he has a revelation that the nature of life is that it bears us and devours us. It is a dream, that is not a dream of the divine, but a dream of the earthly. But it is a dream, it is a vision. Visions interest me a lot.

Jewishness, obviously, inflects your work. Even in The Tree of Life, which is not "officially" Jewish, Rev. Keene recites a Hebrew prayer -- which appears in the book in Hebrew typography. What do you think of the concept -- and the term itself -- of the "Jewish writer?" Do you think it's confining? Appropriate? Inaccurate?

I think it's complex like any other. One of the things that interested me profoundly about the American Protestant frontier and colonial experience is that it is deeply Hebraic -- the influence of the Bible and particularly the King James. I loved utilizing Biblical texts in my work, and I loved playing off Biblical text against contemporary vernacular, whatever that is.

I am working on a book now, for the first time in 25 or 30 years that is deeply Jewish. It is about an American Jew, who is an artist, an illustrator, and a writer, who's secular and liberal in orientation, and he's a kind of an archetypical Upper West Sider, who has a terrifying religious experience. It is a deeply Jewish book; it is a book that is my -- how can I put it? -- my mature meditation ... on what it is to be a Jew at the present time. And what it is to be a secular Jew. Where do we stand, and what defines your Jewishness? But what interests me more than that is to dramatize various aspects of the American tradition ... the American experience. It can be Jewish or it can be Protestant or pagan, as in The Song of the Earth -- but they're essentially American. And the reason for that is that my major infatuation -- as with every other writer who's interested -- is the American language. I mean, the melody of the American language is to me something that is absolutely wondrous. One of the things that I have done assiduously throughout my life is to become a ventriloquist. The voices with which one tells a story -- everybody who writes a book ...

[my wife] Marilyn is working on a biography now of Dorothy Schiff, and one of the things that Marilyn is struggling with is the voice. What is the voice that you use in order to express? And every writer must find a voice for a particular book. I pride myself on the fact that all the voices that came to me were different than the other voices, because they were reflective of the personalities of the individual and the historic time from which he arose.

The first book is written in the voice of a man who is conversant with 1960s American colloquialism. The Tree of Life is written in the voice of a 19th-century New England intellectual. The Song of the Earth obliterates the voice of the author completely. I believe in a certain sense -- or have up until this point -- that the mark of modernism is really what Flaubert said: that like god, the author should be present everywhere in his work but invisible. So I remove my own personality from these characters and let them speak for me. The Song of the Earth is a book that is composed of many voices -- a chorus of voices, juxtaposed to each other, all speaking. There's no consistent narrative in it at all.

I find that for the first time in my experience as a novelist, with the book that I'm working on now, that it is told in a third-person authorial voice, which for the first time is my voice. It is a voice composed and coming out of the contemporary American vernacular of a man my age, of an intellectual my age. And this is the first time that my own music is being heard. I'm not a ventriloquist in this book. The authorial voice which appears in this novel is essentially my voice. And that's interesting for me, because, as I say, I hadn't done this, except years and years ago with my short stories. I hadn't done that before in the novel. That's fun -- it's an interesting experience.

I have to ask a sad, inevitable question to anybody who's covered Israel for as long as you have -- you've been writing about it for a good 40 years. I wondered if you'd give an assessment or any observations about what's euphemistically referred to as "the situation."

It breaks my heart. It breaks the heart of all my Israeli friends -- I have many, many, many dear Israeli friends with whom I'm in frequent contact, who live in Israel, in all parts of the country, and who represent various -- not friends particularly among so-called intellectuals, but kibbutzniks and ex-kibbutzniks, businessmen ... there are some intellectuals -- but I feel that they are faced with an implacable enemy, a great portion of which -- or some portion of which -- is dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state.

I think that a lot of evidence is now that Arafat really wants the destruction; he does not want peace, he wants the destruction of the Jewish state. On the other hand, I am adamantly opposed to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which I think is inadmissible behavior. I am deeply upset by the growth since 1967 of what Amos Elon calls a new messianism combined with Israeli nationalism, which I think is extremely dangerous, and deleterious to the creation of the kind of country that I would like to see. I think that with 1967 the profound irony was in that victory it sowed the seeds of a kind of redemptive fantasy, which has taken possession of a certain portion of the Israeli population. There is a real belief among a certain portion of the Israeli population that the redemptive process has begun, which is Shabbateanism [Shabbatai Zevi was the famous Jewish 17th-century "false messiah"], which is just terrifying. It is another manifestation in Jewish history of false messianism.

I think that in no small, uncertain terms, Rav Kook [the nationalistic chief rabbi of Palestine in the 1930s], who was greatly revered by my religious friends, is really responsible for this. He was the first one to suggest that perhaps the redemptive process had begun with the ingathering of the exiles. I think that the dream of my youth, of an essentially secular, humanistic Israeli society, has died, to be replaced by a society that is deeply strange to me, and deeply upsetting to me. I realize that Israel is a democracy -- at least insofar as its Jewish population is concerned -- I'm not so sure that its behavior towards its Arab citizens is what I'd consider to be democratic. But I think that, as a democracy, it is responsive to vox populi, and I think that the situation is deeply tragic. I think we are in the darkest period of Jewish history since the Holocaust that I can remember -- I really do. I'm very frightened and deeply pessimistic. I see no evidence that the government under Sharon -- they're irredentist -- and I see no evidence that they are really willing to do what I think should be done, which is to unilaterally get the hell out of the West Bank -- just pull out. I think the two-state solution is the only solution that is conceivable. But -- on both sides -- there are forces which are militating against it, and I am terribly sad and very scared. I really am -- I'm shaken by it. I've never witnessed anything like this. And the cycle of violence ... is terrifying. Suicide bombers and their covenant with death, their being in love with death ... but the violence unleashed by the Israelis against the Arab population is also something which is reprehensible. And it's a cycle with an ending that is catastrophic.

Years ago, I wrote a story called "Forcing the End" which gives me the willies now, because it was a prophecy of a kind of apocalypse occurring as the result of two sides being intractable in their refusal to make peace -- and a sort of an apocalypse occurring. It's a retelling of the story of Yochanan Ben-Zakkai, who was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin, to go to Yavne to keep alive Judaism under the Roman occupation. And as I repeat, it gives me the willies that I foresaw this awful, awful condition.

Economically it is a fiasco; both the Israeli and the Palestinian economies are catastrophically -- there is a tribal warfare going on that is just terrifying. One of the things, I think, that I really blame -- I see that in retrospect -- that secular Jews did not do, was raise holy hell when it became apparent the theocratic elements of Israeli society were in the ascendancy and wanted to take over control of that culture. And we shut up. We let it happen. I think Ben-Gurion [Israel's first prime minister] made a terrible mistake -- out of sentimentality -- going ahead and giving into them and not having a written constitution, because of the possibility that the law of God is the law. I think that the choice of proportional representation was of course catastrophic. There are only two examples in history that I can think of -- we have a very poor political sense -- the two circumstances of proportional representation that come to mind were eventually catastrophic. One was the Russian constituent assembly after the revolution -- the first revolution -- and the other was the Weimar republic....

Two sterling examples....

To look for sterling examples of democracies that collapsed! It seems to me there's something the matter with you.... to choose these as your models of behavior! To set up governments that are based on the Weimar republic and the constituent assembly.... you've got to be nuts!

Your new work-in-progress is called The Days of Awe.

It's called The Days of Awe, and it is another riff, on the Agnon book called Days of Awe. It is a contemporary -- as I say, it's about a secular -- it's seen through the eyes of a secularist. It is the days of awe and it also takes place -- it begins in August 2001, and encompasses 9/11, which is part of the days of awe.

Very contemporary.

I found that the coincidence of choosing this span of time -- there's a very specific reason, because something happens in Israel: the killing of some Hamas leaders just prior to the beginning of the novel; it's a leitmotiv of the novel. And then I found myself, that I had to deal with New York ... the days of awe ... 9/11. And I found that it was no real effort to integrate -- because what interests me profoundly is the religious implication of these events. What interests me profoundly is the religious implications of 9/11. How did that effect the people who were believers? Just as how the events in the life of my protagonist affect his belief in what does he believe. And in a sense -- even though it sounds pretentious to say so -- I am writing a "spiritual history" of this, of this event, and that's what interests me.

One of the things that was fascinating about 9/11 and the American response is that there was an immediate religious response. There was a profound outpouring of religious feeling. Only in America -- we're a deeply religious civilization; we always have been. We have separation of church and state but our population is deeply, deeply religious. And so one of the things that interested me very much was the outpouring of religious thought and sermons about 9/11. And of course, ultimately it is a conflict -- like it or not -- of religions that is going on in here. There is an intense conflict between Islamism and the Western religious vision.

I can't wait for its release.

I can't wait to finish the damn thing! | November 2003

 

Richard Klin lives in New York's Hudson Valley. His writing has appeared in the Forward, Publishers Weekly, Parabola and the Web zine LiP. He has recently completed a novel.