Writing Writers’ Lives: Writing Jewish Lives

– This next panel is the
first one that we’ve done in a collaboration with
a publishing series. In this case, it’s the Jewish Live series published by Yale. And the reason that this
was very fortunate for us is that it enabled us to bring in some people that we might not otherwise have been able to fly from long distances, and our moderator will
introduce you to them, but let me introduce you to the moderator. Ruth Franklin, oh, and
I do wanna acknowledge Stephen Zipperstein who could not be here and Eileen Smith Farrar,
and at Yale Press, for making this happen. Ruth Franklin is a book critic and senior editor at the New Republic. Her first book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies
and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, was published by Oxford last
year to glowing reviews. The Atlantic called it a towering work of criticism and insight. The book was a finalist for
the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature, and is
now available in paperback. Tablet Magazine recently named her one of our most important
critics under 40. Not many of us are under 40. She has written for many publications including the New Yorker,
the New York Review of Books, the Jewish Review of Books and Salmagundi, to which she contributes
a regular film column. She received a 2012 Guggenheim
fellowship and biography and the 2012 Roger Shattuck
Price for criticism. She’s currently a fellow
at the Coleman Center for Scholars and Writers at
the New York Public Library, and is working on a biography of the writer Shirley Jackson. Please welcome Ruth Franklin. (audience applauding) – Thank you, first I
just want to make sure that my mic is on, and
it indeed appears to be. Good, so I’ll introduce our panelists and then hopefully start some conversation among us. Greg Bellow worked for 40 years as a psychoanalytically
oriented psychotherapist, and is a member of the core faculty of the Sanville Institute. He also is the eldest son of Saul Bellow, who is the subject of his new memoir. memoir cum biography, I think one thing that
maybe we’ll talk about is the difference between these two forms. The book is called Saul Bellow’s Heart. Joshua Rubenstein is a senior adviser at Amnesty International USA, and a longtime associate
at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian
and Eurasian Studies. He is the author and
editor of numerous books about Russia, including Tangled Loyalties: The Life
and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg, The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov, and Stalin’s Secret Pogrom, which won a National Jewish Book Award. His new book is Leon Trotsky:
A Revolutionary’s Life. And Steve Weitzman is the director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and Daniel E. Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion
at Stanford University. His books include Song and
Story in Biblical Narrative, Surviving Sacrilege: The Jews, a History, and his new biography, Soloman: The Lore of Wisdom. So I want to start out by
pointing out the obvious, these are three very different books. But what I want to
start off by focusing on is that in different ways, you’ve all written forms
of unauthorized biography. Steve talks about going
beyond the tradition in his portrait of Solomon, and Joshua is taking
an unconventional look at one of the major figures of
20th century Russian history. Meanwhile, Greg’s book is a
deeply personal reflection on his father’s life. So I’d like to begin by asking you each to talk a little bit about the approach that you chose toward your subject, and what motivated that approach. – When I wrote that I did
an unauthorized biography I had in mind a kind of pun on an authorized version of the Bible, and I thought what I was doing was kind of the opposite of the Bible. Solomon is the ultimate authority figure in biblical narrative. And he’s an authority figure whose life, and who has a downfall, that calls into question
any kind of authority, especially intellectual authority. So I saw this book, a book about a figure who is a complete mystery to us, we know nothing about King Solomon. I saw this book as an opportunity to kind of explore intellectual authority. The kind of authority
that I, as a scholar, am supposed to have. And saw the book as a kind of exploration of the limits
of intellectual authority. – How do you write about
a historical figure about whom there is so
little information available outside the Bible? – Good question, that was the question that I asked myself for many months before I started this project. We know, actually nothing
about King Solomon. We have the biblical account. Actually accounts, we
have more than one account in the bible, that of the book of Kings and that of the books of Chronicles. But there’s nothing in those accounts that can be verified
according to the standards of modern historiography. Archeologists have been
looking for Solomon for more than 100 years, and
have found nothing conclusive. Facts that we thought we
knew about King Solomon turned out not to be facts, so all I could really do in the end was examine other people’s
efforts to find King Solomon. And in a way, that’s what the book is, is a series of expeditions
into expeditions of other people’s efforts
to find this elusive figure. – Josh, what about you? – Well when I was first
asked to write this biography of Trotsky, I had a question which others raised in the reviews of the book, which is why is a figure like Trotsky in a Jewish lives series? Because he did, in some ways,
reject his Jewish identity, not his Jewish origins. But as I did my research
and came across material, some of which others had commented on, and some they had not, I
found repeated references to Jewish suffering. In very personal ways
that other revolutionaries did not engage in. And in the end I had to
conclude that Trotsky was more of a Jew than he thought he was. He was more of a Jew in spite of himself. And the key moment for me
was when I read two things. First, his accounts of
the Mendel Beilis trial. Trotsky is in Vienna when
the trial is unfolding in Kiev and he’s reading
day by day accounts and commenting on it, and he’s very angry with
the czar’s government, and then he recalls this moment. This anger over Beilis after
World War II has begun, and he invokes the image of
Mendel Beilis as his image for what is about to happen to Europe. That Europe is the same
as this vulnerable Jew, who is being sacrificed. And I felt only someone who
had some deep Jewish loyalty, no matter how hidden, no matter how concealed or how deep, that that was there. And then throughout
this book I find threads of those feelings,
especially in response to physical attacks on Jews, that he expresses from
the 1905 revolution on. So this is one of the threads in the book that I felt I was contributing in ways that other biographers had not. – As I see it, the particular
challenge of your book is almost the opposite with
the challenge of Steve’s book in that you’re retelling a life that’s already been very well documented. – Yes, very well documented but you know I’m, I’m not a follower. I never met Trotsky. I’m not Isaac Deutscher who
wrote this magnificent book but in some ways I have
to say wrong-headed. It’s just so full of praise
and adulation for Trotsky which I cannot share. And then there’s a recent biography by Robert Service, who’s a
very well-known historian in England, that I think goes too far in his criticism of Trotsky,
both on personal grounds and then other grounds. So I did find some personal
sympathy for Trotsky because of his suffering, his own fate, the fate of his children, grandchildren disappeared from history, his courage in opposing Stalin, all that I want to acknowledge! But in the end, his legacy
is as a revolutionary who created a revolution that, in the end, wrought a great deal of destruction. – Greg, I want to invite you, as introduction to your book to read the passage that you had selected. – Well let me try and
answer the purpose question and then I’ll do that. As a memoirist, I feel a little bit like a fish out of water, because
what my challenge was to weave a coherent narrative
out of subjective facts. In other words, I sort
of see what I’ve done as I kind of speak memory. And most of my data really comes out of my memories of my father,
the stories that he told me, the life history that I knew about, the life history that I participated in, and I’ve also tried to say
something about the books and where they’re, there are places in the books where I feel that he speaks very much from the heart, which is the source of my title. And I came prepared with a little snippet to sort of illustrate the way in which I try to weave these things together, because I am very interested
in the response of biographers to a memoirist who uses and acknowledged a different frame of
reference and methodology. So if you’ll bear with me, I
asked the panel’s permission to read a snippet because
I think it will give you a better flavor than I’m able to give you about what I have in mind. – Let’s hear it. – The other thing I would say is, my father would be
tickled to be on the panel where Trotsky and Solomon and he, (audience laughing) you know, were the subjects. And he was an early Trotskyite. There is a book just about to be published by the University of Kentucky
Press about his politics, which contains extensive interviews with my brothers and I
as the final chapter. And there is a story, do you know that there’s a story about
my father and Trotsky? – Yes, it’s in the books. – I was all excited
actually to read your book and hear this story because
it was mentioned to me that there was an intersection in fact, between Bellow and Trotsky but then I was disappointed to learn about their meeting, that only Bellow was alive for it. (audience laughing) – That’s correct, I’ll
tell the story if you wish. My parents were in Mexico in 1940. And they were with another couple, Herb and Cora Passin, Herb Passin was a very well-known anthropologist and sociologist, who was a lifelong friend of my father’s. They were both deeply
committed Trotskyites. They were in Pasco, and they arranged, one of Trotsky’s bodyguards was a friend of theirs from Chicago. And they arranged to meet
Trotsky which was not easy to do because he was very highly
protected, in Mexico, although obviously not protected enough. So they went to Mexico City, and it was the day they arrived, the day of the assassination. And he was dead when they got there. But there was all this confusion, and in the confusion, they
ended up going to the morgue and seeing his body still
with congealed blood and bandages all over his head. And I don’t know, they
passed themselves off as American journalists, or
they assumed that they were, but my father must have
told the story fifty times. So speaking of telling
stories fifty times, that’s really where a
lot of the information that I have comes from. So let me take the liberty and the time and then I’ll defer,
because I don’t really want to hog it too much, but it won’t give you much of a sense unless I do this. This is a snippet that
I’ve cobbled together, but basically it describes
my father’s reaction to his father’s death,
my grandfather’s death. And how he treats that and sees the day. Let me just contextualize it by saying my first chapter was called Paradise. In which I convey the first eight years of his life in Lachine, and the second chapter
I call Paradise Lost. Where I feel that he
experiences the success that they met in Chicago,
as opposed to the poverty of the immigrant years, and there was an epidemic of self-interest that broke out amongst the Bellow family after the years of
privation where altruism, and my grandmother’s altruism prevailed. And I feel that a lot of
my father’s altruism came, and his interest in Trotsky
came as a derivative, to some extent, of that altruism. Anyway, I will just go on. Saul’s choice to pursue a literary life was his version of the
epidemic of self-interest that took over the Bellow
family after Lesha’s death, Lesha was my grandmother. In contrast to the mutual sacrifices of family life in Lachine, I came to feel that Saul
and the Bellow family had lost the paradise of
innocence after a decade of material success in Chicago. The losses were multiple. But most important was the absence of communal interest Lesha engendered. The loss of it was not fully apparent until my grandfather’s
death, 20 years later. During grandpa’s last years,
the entire Bellow family including Saul when he was in town, went over to Abraham’s and aunt Fanny. Aunt Fanny was the woman he married almost immediately after
my grandmother died. For a Sunday afternoon meal. When grandma Lesha’s name came up, her children spoke with
her of great reverence. And the afternoons were largely harmonious until the conversation turned to money. Saul argued with his father about money, as Abraham found, my
grandfather’s name was Abraham, that the best way to reassert his winning parental authority was to threaten to
disinherit his children. Frequent fights with his children ended in grandpa’s threat
to change his will, and he often called them
in the middle of the night, threatening that he would call his lawyer the next morning. My uncle Maury, who was
a financial success, quickly tired of this routine early on, and turned his nose up at his share. But Abraham’s material threats
had serious consequences for Sam and Jane who
are my aunt and uncle, and Saul whose fragile finances made him particularly vulnerable. My father would rush back to Chicago to learn about the new will,
but by the time the family had assembled at grandpa’s assistance, to hear of the new asset division, he and the offending child
had patched things up and the crisis would
blow over until Abraham pulled the same stunt again
and the scene was repeated. And my father must have gone to Chicago at least half a dozen times. In 1955, grandpa died
of a fatal heart attack. Maury, my uncle, used his
extensive political connections to secure a police escort with sirens from the synagogue to the cemetery. Saul joked about the irony that Abraham, who was running from the
police most of his life, was accompanied by them
on his final journey. After the funeral, aunt
Fanny confessed to Saul that grandpa wanted to have sex the evening before he died, but she put him off because
he had the sniffles. Her story cemented my father’s awe of Abraham as the tough,
horny old bird that he was. Despite their arguments, one of which included the
threat to come after Saul with a gun if he ever
asked for money again, Saul agreed deeply. When Ruth Miller, a former student who wrote a literary memoir, came to pay a condolence goal, she found my father weeping as he listened to Mozart’s Requiem. Seize the Day reflects Saul’s lost hope for approval from his father. Abraham was not only unable
to show Saul his love, but also formed a critical
judgment of his youngest, as an overgrown crybaby
who failed to absorb his single lesson in life, that life had taught him, the
lesson of emotional toughness. I think my father agreed,
but could do little to control his emotions. A film version of the novel was produced some decades later. The actor, Joseph Weisman
who played Tommy Adler, Dr. Adler, Tommy Wilhelm’s father, bore an uncanny resemblance to grandpa, and perfectly captured his
harshness towards his son. After having witnessed such scenes between my father and grandfather, I was riveted as Tommy begged his implacable father for money. I mentioned how struck I was by the film to several family members, and the praise got back to my father. Saul, who believed writing
was a far better way to capture the essence of
people than film, took offense. On our next visit, he
complained about what he took to be my lack of
appreciation for his novel, and he extended his criticism
to my lack of literature as a whole. I told him that I continued to read great writers of fiction,
but I could not appreciate his books as literature. You’re just too close, pop, I said. And, as is habit when like it or not, you’re confronted by an
irrefutable position, he remained silent and never
brought up the subject again. While his father was alive, Saul hoped to penetrate Abraham’s
mask of family civility. And when grandpa died in 1955,
my father’s previous losses now came to include the false innocence he had created as a young boy when he elevated a father
brought low by failure in Lachine to the status of a hero. This is spelled out in
Hertzog extensively. Nowhere is the loss of, and this is the part that
I’m most interested in because of the way in
which I use the book. Nowhere is the loss of innocence clearer than in Seize the Day, which Saul wrote soon
after his father’s death. His narrator, Tommy Wilhelm,
aspires to be an actor despite being ill-suited to a profession where one must hide one’s feelings behind the traditional theatrical mask. Dr. Adler, Tommy’s father, is a better actor than his son. A man of consummate emotional control, a desperate Tommy tries one last time to penetrate Dr. Adler’s social facade, and touch his heart by
tearfully attributing the end of family life
to his mother’s death, i.e. my grandmother,
and accusing Dr. Adler of relief at her passing. Caught out in his lack of feeling, Dr. Adler gives no quarter,
offering only platitudes. Tommy, after failing once again to elicit a human response from his father, asked himself if he had falsely
sentimentalized the past. Anticipating a future
stripped of illusion, Tommy needs to mourn his compound losses, and wanders into a funeral
of a total stranger. A place where a grown man can cry freely. So you see the way in which I’m trying to put the experiences
that I understand together with the way in which my
father covers him in the book. And I will defer because I’ve taken up way more time than I had planned to. – Well I have a few questions that apply very broadly to all of your books, and obviously in different ways. So I’m just gonna throw
a few of them out there, and please feel free
to build on each other, to speak to each other, maybe
not to interrupt each other, but anyway, you don’t need to wait for me to prompt you is what I’m saying. And I want to start with
bringing up the point that all of you subjects
are larger than life. I’m thinking, Steve, about in your book, one thing that really struck me was the most often-told story about Solomon obviously is the story of
the two women and the baby. I had not realized, and
this obviously is a credit to my poor knowledge of the Bible, somehow I had either not
realized I had forgotten that they were both prostitutes, or also that there were
originally two babies involved. And so I wonder, this seemed to me a way in which you cut through the
mythologizing of the story and bring it back to the
actual facts of the Bible. Obviously there are many other ways, and the same applies for
Trotsky and for Bellow as well. So I wondered if you
could just speak to this. – Part of people’s relationship
to biblical characters is that these figures
live in this faraway land in a faraway place, but they’re also of our time and our place. And part of the history of biblical history and interpretation is drawing connections between
our lives and biblical story, so maybe I’ll address the
story of Solomon’s baby with a joke. So these two women come
before King Solomon, and they are dragging
between them a young man. And the first woman says to Solomon, Solomon I demand justice. This man promised to marry my daughter, and now he’s reneging to marry
this other woman’s daughter. And the other woman says the same thing, he promised to marry my daughter, and how he’s reneging to marry
this first woman’s daughter. So Solomon says I know what to do in these kinds of
circumstances, bring me a sword. So they bring him a sword, and he says okay I’m going
to cut this young man in two, and I’ll give half to you, and I’ll give half to you. And that first woman says no, that would be terrible, don’t cut! And the second woman
says, go ahead and cut. And Solomon points to the second woman and says, behold the true mother in-law. (audience laughing) Maybe I’ll leave it there for now. It’s hard to make a joke out of something in Trotsky’s life, but I
think one of the challenges a biographer has in facing
a figure like Trotsky is that he did so much
writing about himself, and his writing is always very strategic, because after he writes his
wonderful memoir, My Life, while he’s in exile,
Stalin has sent him first to Central Asia and then
to Turkey and Europe. And so he’s writing not
only to tell his life, but to justify his life. And to confirm that it was he and Lenin who made the revolution, not Stalin. And that as Stalin is falsifying history, Trotsky is saying no, no, no, don’t listen to him, listen to my account. Both of his life, his
memoir, and of course his very famous history
of the Russian revolution where he’s also asserting his place. But that assertion has
also many different layers. Because he not only wants to restore his rightful place in that history, but he wants to make it right. Because Stalin is saying, I, Stalin, am the better student of Lenin. And Trotsky is saying no,
no, I was the better student of Lenin, but what Trotsky doesn’t want to think of is that maybe Stalin is also a very good student of Trotsky. Because it was Lenin
and Trotsky who together rejected democratic values
in 1917 that created many of the institutions that Stalin took to much more sinister
purposes, the secret police, there were show trials
while Trotsky and Lenin were in the Kremlin, all of
the abuses of the civil war, I mean they set up the
original dictatorship. And then Trotsky spends the
rest of his life saying, yes we wanted a dictatorship
but not like that one! We had a different kind
of dictatorship in mind. So he’s always, all of his
writing is very strategic, it’s very political, his
own biography is an act of politics, as in some
ways any biography is, particularly in that kind of setting. Where all of the memoirists are dealing with self-censorship to
one degree or another, but with Trotsky or other writers, they’re dealing with the
censorship of the regime or against the censorship of the regime. And that’s always a quality that say, our earlier panelists
the transcendentalists never had to worry about after all. No one is gonna censor Thoreau or Emerson. Other than themselves! – And Greg you start off by talking about the disparity
between the public Bellow and the private person as you knew him. – Correct. I wrote my book because I wanted to make it clear that my father
was not larger than life. And that the larger than life component of what people know about
him is largely the product of the last twenty or
thirty years of his life, after he won the Nobel
Prize, he became famous, he became a cultural icon, he
took many public positions, many of which I had a
great deal of trouble with. And what I wanted to do is
to talk about young Saul, and old Saul are the two ways in which I talk about the lifespan. And that the young Saul,
the young Trotskyite, the idealist, the optimist was replaced by old Saul after the sixties and after going to Israel
to cover the six-day war as a newspaper reporter. Interestingly enough, as in earlier drafts I called, and then later
he distanced himself from that idealistic
youth, and Trotskyite. And in early drafts of my book, I used the chapter Revisionist History, as a way to talk about
how he sort of talk about the way he swept this under the rug, but it was too much of an inside joke and the editors took it out. And now History as Revision, they made it. But really I was trying
to talk about the argument that you were just describing about whose version of history is
the right version of history. – Something that I’m
particularly interested in as a biographer in process myself, and I hope you’ll excuse
the ulterior motive behind many of my questions, I
hope to learn from all of you is how do you deal with facts
that are impossible to prove? Steve, obviously this applies to your book in a very global way. – Big way. – Greg, one thing that comes to my mind, one moment in your book
is when you tell a story of your grandfather getting
upset after finding a ham in your parents’ icebox. And then later in the book, you confess that the
story might be apocryphal. And Josh I assume you’ve come across conflicting sources in
your resources as well. How do you handle this situation? – Well I’ll say in the case of Trotsky, there’s a wonderful story,
he lived in New York for a couple of months in early 1917, and he used to spend time
at a Jewish dairy restaurant in the Bronx. And he wouldn’t tip the waiters,
as a matter of principle, and he would harangue the other customers not to tip the waiters,
because it offended his socialist principles. And you can imagine how this
endeared him to the waiters, and they would refuse to serve him, and they would spit on him,
they would spill soup on him, and then he would tell them, but you know, I’m a determined socialist, I’m going back to Russia,
I’m gonna make a revolution, and they thought he was nuts! And the point is that six months later, he and Lenin take over the Russian empire. And what do we learn? Now with that story how much
truth there is I don’t know, but there is a kernel
of psychological truth. Because I do believe Trotsky
was a determined fanatic. And he was willing to
assert his personality and what he took to be his ideals on this little piece of the universe, this Jewish dairy restaurant in the Bronx. Six months later, that same impetus led him to assert and
impose his ideology on the largest landmass in the
world, the Russian empire. So there was more than a
kernel of truth in that story, and I think the source is pretty good, but whether all the details
are correct is hard to say. – Steve, how do you
deal with the difference between biblical truth
and empirical truth? – So in my case, I had to resort to biography in the
ancient sense of the genre, as practiced by Greeks and
Romans, people like Plutarch, where they didn’t have our modern scientific sensibility yet, for them it wasn’t a question of trying to document a life, or trying to find evidence for a life. For them they used a
life as an opportunity to reflect on human experience. So I embraced that ancient
conception of the genre and used Solomon’s life as an opportunity to think about our ambition to know, to know everything, and what we do when we confront the
limitations of our knowledge. So I went back to an
ancient model for that. – I’m gonna answer the question, but you remind me of another story, which is that when my
father sent my mother an alimony check once, he put in a note saying, hooray for Socialism in one country. The implication, my parents
were both Trotskyites, and the implication is
if Trotsky had prevailed, I wouldn’t have to send you this check. (audience laughing) But I have the easiest answer of all, which is that I’m a memoirist. In other words, I’m
relying on my own memory, there’s no empirical data except
what I’m able to drag out, I mean I talk to
relatives, friends, cousins for ten or fifteen years
before I started to write, and my brother wisely said to
make some notes, and I did. But there is a story, which you know, my parents were living on
the south side of Chicago. This is 1938, they were
both active Trotskyites, my father had nothing whatsoever to do with any form of Jewish observance. My grandfather came over, found a ham in my parents’ refrigerator. Or icebox, I guess it’s
called in those days. Then he went over to my uncle
Maury and aunt Marge’s house. And he said, cook me an egg in this shell. Which means in other words, I can’t eat your un-kosher food any more than I can eat
their un-kosher food. And then he went on to
say that he was shocked to find a ham in my parents’ icebox. The story was told to me by the aunt, to whom my grandfather was speaking. And then when I repeated
the story to my father, during the revisionist
history part of his life, he said no, no, no, that never happened. But you know, I’m just pretty sure it did, because they really were throwing Judaism in my grandfather’s face! My father didn’t go to
temple, he didn’t do anything, you know, he was not
observant during that period of time in his life, he was an avowed Trotskyite, I don’t know if he ever really considered himself an atheist. But there is another story
which sort of confirms it, so I use a story on top of a story. And the story on top of a
story is that he came back to visit on Yom Kippur, and
borrowed his father’s car to go visit his Trotskyite
friends on the south side, while the rest of the family
was tearing their hair out because he was driving his
car on the high holidays. So it’s basically contextual. I mean the answer, fundamentally, there are some stories
that sort of back it up. But when it came right down to it, it’s really my gut reaction. The other thing is, I tried to preserve the
ambiguity in the book. In other words, I tried to stay away from making definitive,
declarative statements. Drove my copy editor crazy. Because he kept writing in the margins, when did this happen? Why did this happen? And I kept just crossing it out. I mean there’s a little
thing, you can write, stet, which means leave it in, in the editing. Because it’s not clear cut! None of this is clear cut. – Well I think also,
one of the things I did in my book, which I found
surprisingly useful, was I went to the New York
Times, something we all read every day, and I saw
how the New York Times was covering Trotsky from the
mid-twenties until his death. And because of the internet,
it’s very easy to do now. And what was appalling to me
is how much they got wrong. And how much they were including that was clearly misinformation being circulated by Stalin’s regime, with all kinds of claims about Trotsky that couldn’t conceivably be true. But I used that in the
book as a counterweight to what was said about him, because he’s always responding to it. He’s so appalled, he’s angry. Once he’s in Mexico
and from January ’37 on he has access to the American press, the journals of opinion he’s following what then the republic,
what the nation are saying. About the purge trials,
and they’re apologizing for the purge trials,
they’re saying it’s all true and Trotsky really is a part
of a conspiracy against Stalin and doing all of these terrible things. And Trotsky’s appalled,
he’s alone, he’s helpless! He virtually has no money. And they’re saying he’s got an
army here, and an army there, and he’s involved in all
kinds of conspiracies. But that is part of the story. Even when you know that it isn’t true, because it’s still part of his life. – That brings me to the next thing I wanted to consider which
is that none of us here, myself included, is the
author of a first biography of his or her subject. So that’s an issue is how do you deal with the challenges of
coming after other authors who may have well introduced inaccuracies that are now accepted as fact. And Greg I know you write
that about Bellow as well, or who simply chose to
emphasize different aspects of your subjects’ live,
and so the narrative is fundamentally different. How do you kind of reassert yourself as the author of a different
narrative about your subject? – I guess the author I
was following was God. – Right, so that’s very
challenging indeed. – No problem! (audience laughing) Who surprisingly is capable of mistakes, as a biographer at least. So again, I had to consciously play against biblical narrative,
and I had at my disposal a wonderfully rich
tradition of re-imaginings of the biblical story. From ancient midrash to
modern novel-like re-tellings, King Solomon’s Mines, you know, a score of Hollywood movies, and so I enlisted all those
later kind of re-imaginers of the story as allies in
the telling of my own story, and together we developed an alternative to the biblical account. – Do you see yourself as presenting a fundamentally new Solomon
in some kind of way? Or are you more sort of
building and re-imagining the Solomon that we know and love? – I’m trying to actually
reconnect the reader to this fascinating 2000
year-old interpretive tradition that Solomon has inspired. And that involves theologians,
and archeologists, and explorers, and other
kinds of interpreters. So it’s really about connecting
the reader to other readers, and I don’t actually
make much of a pretense to understand the real King Solomon. – Well I’ll just speak for myself, obviously I had the challenge of writing after Deutscher’s three-volume biography, but through a good deal of effort I did find at least some material that either he chose not to
highlight, or didn’t come across. And secondly, after all I’m
born in the postwar period, I don’t identify myself as a communist, I don’t identify myself as a follower, I ask a different series of questions. My first book is a history around the Soviet dissident movement, so I have a completely different
orientation politically, and as a Jew, and because I’m asking a
different kind of question or asking it from a
different point of view, I think my answers will be different, and if they’re worthwhile,
if they’re compelling, if they’re suggestive, then the book I’m creating and the account and the portrait I’m
creating is worth doing. I did write an earlier book which is a more comprehensive
biography of Ilya Ehrenburg, and there are other books about Ehrenburg, but it really was the first biography, I think it’s fair to say. And there I was the first
really to combine material from the Soviet side, I started under Brezhnev
and finished under Yeltsin. And also on the American side, getting to interview a
hundred people who knew him, going to the State Department records, reading Western press which no
Soviet writer about Ehrenburg ever had the chance to do until then. So no matter when you’re writing if you come with a good set of questions, your answers will be different. And because you’re a different generation, different experience, you should end up with a different kind
of book that hopefully will be worth having. – I have a very different answer. There was a public biography
of my father in 1990, by James Atlas. That was received
ambivalently by the public, and there is now being a
researched and authorized biography by Zachary Leader, who wrote
a very comprehensive biography of Kingsley Amis, and is now writing a very comprehensive
biography of my father. And the way I handled this, basically, was that I told Zachary Leader that I would do anything
I could do to help him, short of telling him
anything about my father. (audience laughing) And the reason is, in the back of my mind, even though he started
before me, he’s taken on a much larger task. And it was clear to me that
the things I had to talk about were not the kinds of
things that he was ever gonna know to ask to me. That much of what I wrote came so much from the personal that
I didn’t really think, as thorough as he is, and
he’s extremely thorough, I get emails from him about
what our address was in Paris, when I was five years
old, and I don’t know, and then he sends me
three paragraph emails about how this was my father’s studio, and we moved in, and we moved out, and such and such lived next door. And I’m going, okay. But there was a level
of intimacy that I tried to go after in my memoir
that I just didn’t think, first of all I didn’t want
to share it, very selfishly, with anybody until I’d got it out, gotten it on paper, and
knew what I was gonna say. And then by that time
it became so personal that it was just clear
to me that Zach Leader, as able as he is, that’s
not what he’s going for. He has a very different task, and so I felt like I was, in
a way, sort of running free. I will say that I used mister Atlas’ book as a sort of memory prompt. I read it, and then I would
dictate into the computer. Because it was sort of
my life, and Saul’s life, and my mother’s life to a lesser extent. I’d just use it as a
catalyst for my thinking. – How did you perception
of your subject change during the course of your
working on these books? – Well I hope it did change. First you learn more, and that
has to adjust your thinking. But I remember coming across a letter that Trotsky wrote to Philip
Rahv in the late thirties, Rahv was one of the
editors of Partisan Review, and I ended up using a
quotation from the letter as the epigraph to the book, where he says nothing important in history has been achieved without fanaticism. And that he would write
this in the late thirties after all that he had endured, and after all that had
happened in the Soviet Union and the purge trials, and still he was an
advocate for fanaticism! Kind of underscored for
me that this was a shadow over his entire career as a revolutionary. And to me, it was very
much a part of his tragedy, that in the end, he
couldn’t renounce himself, he couldn’t renounce his idea
of himself as a revolutionary, so he had to defend the revolution even while it was destroying
the country and destroying his own family, and himself. – I think I was most
surprised by the effect that Solomon’s stories had on, kind of the history of culture. For example, readers were long fascinated with his wealth, he’s reputed to be the richest man of his time. And the question that
occurred to readers was, where did it come from? And in the fifteenth century as Europe began to acquire the ability to send ships long distances,
people began to look for the source of this wealth. And I was surprised to
learn that among those searchers was Christopher Columbus, who was searching, among other things, for this place called Ophir, the source of Solomon’s legendary wealth, and actually thought he found it in what is now the Dominican Republic. And when he didn’t
discover any gold there, he was placed under
arrest by the authorities, brought back to Europe, eventually however he returned, and he sought Solomon’s
gold again on the coast of what is now Panama. And that then led to this
centuries-long search by Spanish, Portuguese, British explorers searching for the source
of Solomon’s wealth that had a devastating impact on the various countries
that they looked in. So I was surprised by that story, that Solomon played such an important role in European colonization and the rape of so many different regions. – Did your perception
of your father change? – Yes, I think quite a bit. I didn’t have an easy time with my father after about age 30. Sometimes I like to say
that I was brought up by Augie March, and that
when I turned 25 or 30, my father became Arthur Sammler, which was not pleasant. And I fought with my father a lot. He took a lot of political
and social positions I didn’t very much like, and there were a number of conflicts between he and I, including my participation
or lack of it in Jewish life, which was a particularly sore point. And so I wrote my first draft, and I sent it off to two people who knew both of us very well, and Gene Goodheart who some
of you may know as a memoirist is a long term friend, who said, Gregory, you can do better than this. You’re not being fair to your
father as an old man at all. And I really think I
developed an appreciation for him as a great writer
after he passed away, when the personal stuff, I mean it’s in the book,
that’s why I gave you a sample of it, but also I’ve now
come to see these things, as I’ve said, I can’t see
it as literature, Pop, I know can see it as literature. In a way that I could not
before I wrote this book. And that’s delightful, and it’s big, and also I spent six hours
a day locked up in my study with Mozart blaring in my ears
the way he did for 70 years, and so we had shared a
sort of common experience of writership, which I
also think brought me closer to him as a writer. – Great, well on that note
I want to say thank you to each of you, we have
some time now for questions. So I’d like to open it up to the audience. (audience applauding) – [Man] I met Saul Bellow,
got a photo with him, very sweet man. But what I’m interested in is anger. I think later in life, you
know, things are glossed over. Three examples in his case, and I wonder if you could
maybe give the reason. He wrote a letter against
Nation Magazine types, where he lists, this is Chris Hitchens he was angry about that. 17 elements of hatred, the
baby snatchers, wife beaters, I mean enormous anger,
and then in the footnote it says later on he
became friendly with Chris and just ignored this. The second example of his
letters about William Philips, he’s trying to blackball
him out of societies, but in the memorial
volume of William Philips, there’s this Saul Bellow story, and a quote from Saul Bellow. I mean in the later life, the wonder is, did he soften up? Or is it part of a revisional history? The key to it might be the
James T. Farrell reference in that biography, where Farrell was given the Thoreau Award of the
arts and sciences society and Saul Bellow was in charge of that, and he says well, here’s
a guy, Saul Bellow who’s ignored me all my life, but now they seem to
be giving me an award. So was it softening, or was
it just revisonist history? – I don’t think it was either. You know, if you’re asking for consistency from my father, forget it. He was prickly, he was irritable,
people got under his skin, I got under his skin, my
brothers got under his skin, literary adversaries got under his skin. I mean he always forgave
us, and you know sometimes he had longstanding enmities with people, sometimes he had longstanding friendship that became enmities. I don’t know if he had a
falling out with Ed Shils, but they certainly
terminated their friendship. So I guess what I’m saying
is he was prickly, always. And you’ve cited three examples, and I could give you fifty more. – [Woman] Hi, thank you
all, this is wonderful. I’d like to ask your brilliant moderator if you would tell us
something about your work on Shirley Jackson, along the lines that you’ve been asking
the panelists about, but particularly what was her
relationship to Jewishness, and being a Jewish woman? – Gosh, for a second I
thought you were going to ask me what was her relation to Solomon, Trotsky, and Saul Bellow. (audience laughing) Shirley Jackson actually wasn’t Jewish, so I feel a bit like I’m
here with my other hat on, as a literary critic who writes
often about Jewish books. She was married to the
Jewish literary critic, Stanley Edgar Hyman, who was very famous in the 40s, 50s, 60s as a book critic for the
New Yorker, the New Leader among other publications, now has faded into the dust of history,
which is a cautionary tale for all of us who make our
living as book critics. But, so she did actually, while Shirley Jackson
was not a Jewish woman, she did identify somewhat with Judaism, and the family considers themselves, his name was Hyman after all, considered themselves to be,
in some ways, a Jewish family. And I think the antisemitism
that she saw Stanley experience really from the time they
were undergraduates together at Syracuse, and then later on they lived in Bennington, Vermont for
almost the rest of their lives, a very small town in which
I believe Stanley Hyman was the only Jew in residence. And it’s believed that some
of their experiences there informed her writing and The Lottery, which obviously is about
prejudice and many other things. Yes, I do want to correct any conception that Shirley Jackson is a Jewish writer, but there is a Jewish
connection in her work. – [Man] Hi, I’m Eric Alterman, I guess I’m one of those
Nation Magazine types that Saul Bellow would despise. I’m actually writing about Saul Bellow for a book I’m writing about
Jewish cultural figures in the period, he’s a chapter. And I imagine it must be
very frustrating for you because there’s so much
written about your father that people feel like they know him when they only know a certain part of him. One thing I was surprised to hear you say was that he was angry about
you for not participating sufficiently in Jewish life. The question I was gonna
ask you, and it’s related, is what’s with all this theosophy stuff that he was always interested in? And so my question is what’s
with all this theosophy stuff, and how does that square
with what you’re saying is the importance of
Jewishness in his life, as far as your discussions go? – If I had four hours I
could probably give you a half an answer. Let me just talk about
the spiritual question. As an older man, he became
quite preoccupied with death, with the afterlife, or with
the absence of information about the afterlife, he studied Rudolph Steiner in great depth, and many other people. He read, he thought deeply,
he tried to emulate Steiner, and Steiner’s practices. And then he gave up, I
think he gave up on Steiner, and I think he blamed himself, honestly. And I think in Humboldt’s Gift you sort of see his
confession of the inability to make the kind of demands, fulfill the kind of demands
that Steiner demands. I understand this much of it, but in the first couple of chapters of a couple of books my father gave me, it says you have to suspend your doubt. Well he never could suspend his doubt. My answer is, he was still the cerebral, intellectual person that he was, and Steiner asked things
of him he couldn’t deliver. And I think he confessed
this, largely to it, when Charlie talks about his inability to give up the corporal
life, it’s just too much fun. – [Man] If I could make the question a little more pointed though, I understand why he’d give
up, I don’t understand what he was doing there
in the first place. There’s no one else in that circle of writers and thinkers
with whom he was associated that had any interest
in this stuff at all. And yet he pursued for so long, and you know, it might be my ignorance, but I just don’t get the
attraction in the first place. – I think it gave the possibility, I mean in my mind, Humboldt’s gift is that it comes from the great beyond. That Humboldt gives him another chance to do it right next
time, that’s my answer. – [Woman] Hi, I’m Susan Smith Peter, and this is a question for Josh. I’m interested in, if you
could talk a bit about Trotsky’s time here in New York, perhaps also a little bit about
the New York Public Library, and if it is true that
there was a headline in a Bronx paper that said, Bronx Man Leads Russian Revolution, and then one more part. I’ve read your work actually
on Soviet dissidents, and I’m wondering if you see them like rebellious sons,
or as heirs to Trotsky, or do you see them as
two disjointed parts? – Let me answer this last question. The dissidents I knew and still know don’t see any connection to Trotsky, they rejected the revolution. Even those who were
self-professed Marxists, like late general Grigorenko
who was a Marxist member of the party, they
rejected all those people. So although they may
sympathize with Trotsky on a personal level, and certainly in a very uninformed way I think see him as an alternative to Stalin, they don’t identify with him at all. Maybe, some of them may see Bukharin as a more possible alternative, but really they’re
rejecting the whole thing. In stages, you know, Sakharov first says how the regime had rejected
Leninist principles, that’s language he later never uses and apologizes for using. So let me just put that out there. Trotsky came to New York because he was thrown out of Europe. He was thrown out of
France because the Russians had Russian troops stationed
on the Western front, and found it inconvenient
to have a revolutionary during World War I who
rejected the war altogether. So he was taken to Spain,
and Spain wouldn’t keep him. But he was allowed to leave for America, and he was grateful for
that, because he was afraid he’d be sent back to
Russia, where he would serve a life term, under the czar anyway. He came here in January, he left in the weeks following the
abdication of the czar, and just when Wilson was
leading the US into World War I. So he was really here at
a very important point in history, the hinge moment, he made his living writing
for an emigre newspaper called Novy Mir, New
World, who lent its name to his famous journal in Moscow, Bukharin was here,
Alexander Caliente was here, and he was lecturing, he was
traveling in Philadelphia and Boston, well I shouldn’t
say for sure to Boston, he was all over New York, even now there’s a corner
just north of Central Park that people refer to as Trotsky’s corner, where he would harangue
the crowds from a soapbox. I did not, myself, see the headline that says Bronx Man Leads Revolution, but it’s always possible, it’s possible. But there are many other myths, that he was in a movie, all kinds of myths about the things he did here, I never came across any
hard evidence for that. I do believe the story I recounted to you about being in the
Jewish dairy restaurant. It wasn’t because he was kosher, trust me. I think he just found the food familiar! It was Russians, the waiter spoke Russian, they were like him, they were emigres, he felt comfortable there. And he was always surrounded by Jews. Because so many revolutionaries were Jews, no matter where he was. Vienna, Paris, Petersburg,
Moscow, New York. And you know, so he gravitated
toward them, it was natural. – [Ruth] One last question. (audience member speaking off-mic) Oh I’m sorry, you’re being asked to go to the microphone. – [Woman] A quick question about the role of Bennington, which you
describe at that point as the Hymans, Shirley
Jackson and her husband as he being the only Jew there, and as a member of the
faculty at Bennington. But which I understood
it, given its founding and it’s sort of a black mountain college for very rich girls, at a certain point, but its faculty as artists and writers and critics in residence,
at least at different times, never mind its student body which included Helen
Frankenthaler and others, how could Hyman have been the only Jew that the presumably provincial antisemites of Bennington found so anomalous? – You’re right, and that
wasn’t what I meant at all, there were of course
many Jews at the faculty at Bennington, including
Bernard Malamud and many others. I believe that Hyman may
have been the only Jew living in the town of North Bennington, which is a separate place. They made a point of living off campus, because they did want to
mingle with the townspeople I think, and bring up their children in a more open, what they
thought was a more diverse, more socioeconomically diverse society than the very narrow
confines of the campus, which I’m sure you know
was extremely privileged at the time, the student body was very very wealthy. And almost all of the faculty chose to live within the campus itself. So what I meant actually,
was North Bennington, which was a distinct location
from Bennington College, and I’ve been told that
some of the townspeople who lived in North Bennington at the time, including someone named Mr. Powers who ran the grocery store, that these personalities are recognizable in the characters in The Lottery. Anyway, we are now out of time, so please join me in
thanking our panelists. (audience applauding)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *