Song of the Earth
by Hugh Nissenson
Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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].
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.
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.
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 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....
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.
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.