The Language Deep, Deep in Chabon's Ear


One of America’s leading writers, Michael Chabon first became known in 1988 with the publication of his highly successful debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Since that time Chabon has published two short-story collections and five novels, including The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Over the years Chabon has steadily migrated to the unlikely intersection where high-brow literature, genre fiction, and Jewish themes all come together, something wonderfully exemplified by his new book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a hard-boiled detective novel set in an imaginary Yiddish-speaking society in present-day Alaska.

I should note that Michael and I are friends. I didn’t know who he was when we met back in 2000, but was immediately taken aback when he asked for an extended explanation of my dissertation, something that put him in a category including two people other than my parents. A couple years later he not only supported my efforts to establish myself as a fiction writer, but also helped me clean out my basement after I made the mistake of burning my house down. To say I owe him would be an understatement. Nevertheless, while I hope this interview brings him more readers yet, I also believe that the following questions are simply an honest effort to get a writer to elaborate on the construction and meaning of his latest novel.

The premise of your new book—a detective novel set in a Yiddish homeland in present-day Alaska—is one of the more unlikely premises I’ve seen in some time. Where did the initial idea for this novel come from? Also, as was the case with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, you worked on this novel for a number of years. How did this book, especially your understanding of what it was about beyond this initial premise, evolve during the process of its composition?

Unlikely premises seem to be my lot or fault. Decrepit Sherlock Holmes, talking parrot. Tuba, dead snake, and Marilyn Monroe jacket in trunk of Ford Galaxie. Comic-book guys in the ‘40s. People’s eyes just used to glaze over when I would tell them I was writing a novel about comic-book guys in the ‘40s. It was painful to them to hear, and to me to have to describe.

I’d like to say I’m used to that kind of reaction now—yeah, uh, it’s an alternate-history-detective-love story set in Alaska among Yiddish-speaking Jews—but it still kind of unnerves me.

This novel ramified from an essay I wrote, ten years ago now, in reaction to a curious little book called Say It In Yiddish: A Phrasebook for Travelers. I’ve been living with this material for that long, and damn, that title is still the most evocative, sad, strange, funny thing! I spent a little time in that essay trying to imagine possible Yiddishlands where, today, you might want to have that book along. One of those was a Yiddish-speaking territory of the United States, in Alaska. I had read somewhere that there was a short-lived proposal to let Jews from Europe into Alaska. I imagined it, briefly, as a kind of, not anti-Israel, but counter-Israel, cool, gray, moderate, and above all, out of the way—out of the path or cross-hairs of History and Controversy. I wondered what the world would be like if most of its Jews lived in a place where people just sort of forgot about them and left them alone.

That essay when it was published caused some pain and outrage in a small but vocal corner of the small but vocal Yiddishist community. Some people felt that I was mocking not only Yiddish but the authors of the phrasebook, Beatrice and Uriel Weinreich. I heard from Mrs. Weinreich and she was pretty mad.

It was argued that the idea of a phrasebook that told you how to say “I need something for a tourniquet” in Yiddish was not at all absurd, or else it was argued that in claiming it was absurd, and in dwelling on the non-existence of a country where such a Yiddophone tourniquet-provider could be found, I was saying that Yiddish itself was absurd, because—I suppose—it is no longer a living language. And I guess that in a way I was saying that. I think a lot of the people who took my essay amiss are deluding themselves—in denial, as Janet Hadda subsequently argued, grieving a death they won’t acknowledge. And maybe it was a cruel thing to say. But to me the main point of the essay was not the absurdity of the phrasebook but its poignance and its power over my imagination and the longing I felt to visit the country it seemed to me to imply.

The book grew out of that longing, in part. Also from the sense of shame I felt at not having had the faintest idea when I wrote the essay that Uriel Weinreich was the great lost hope of Yiddish culture, this young brilliant star of Yiddish who died young and left a legacy that meant a lot to a lot of people. I felt badly about Mrs. Weinreich, and about my ignorance. I had this sense of dutifulness, this desire to educate myself about Yiddish and Yiddishkeit, kind of make up for my offense and my cultural cluelessness. That was the good Jewish boy side of me. The bad Jewish boy side of me said, af tselokhes, “Oh, really, so the essay bothered you, well, okay then, here’s a whole damn novel, motherfuckers!”

I worked on it for a little less than four years, give or take. It got really huge and uncontrollable at one point and I went kind of bananas with the alternate-reality stuff, and the plot. As I worked and rewrote I became more and more focused on the characters and their relationships, especially on Meyer and Bina, and on the enigmatic character of the victim, who was not the original victim at all in my first massive draft, but who came to carry more and more of my interest as I went along. The plot, I hope, got tighter and less stupid.

This novel, in very unusual ways, is about language. Beyond the obvious fact that almost all of the primary characters have Yiddish as their mother tongue, and more importantly live in a society where this is the official language, how do you explain this novel’s interest in, use of, and relationship to Yiddish? How does your understanding and knowledge of—as well as your appreciation and affection for—Yiddish inform the narrator’s voice, including his lexicon, syntax, tone, and sensibilities? What rules did you set for yourself about inserting actual Yiddish words into your English narration?

I began writing this novel absolutely ignorant of Yiddish beyond a core lexicon of maybe 75 words having to do with sex, bodily functions, the invoking of woe and pain, some bits of ironic praise, and a lot of words useful for telling your baby you think it is cute; but I had the sound of the language deep, deep in my ear. And my ear for language goes pretty deep. I grew up hearing Yiddish spoken by the old people in my life. It was always there. Right now I can smell the bitter vitamin smell of the inside of my grandparents’ medicine cabinet, and I can see the label on a bottle of Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak soda, and I can hear the lively mysterious business of people speaking this impenetrable language that seems to be built entirely on contention, irony, and bitter-but-genuine laughter.

So I had a lot to learn. I read books on Yiddish, studied Weinreich’s dictionary and his college grammar book. Harkavy’s dictionary, too. I taught myself to read (very, very slowly and painfully) and guess at and begin to begin to understand the language. I read its literature (in English) and listened to Yiddish songs and tapes of speakers, etc.

But none of that meant anything without the original sound of Yiddish in my deepest ear, and that was always my guide and my handrail and my place to feel safe. I tried to write the novel as if it had been written in Yiddish by a Yiddish writer of the present day, one as much if not more influenced by American and other literatures as by his own, a quasi-American Yiddish disciple of Raymond Chandler and Isaac Babel and Pete Dexter and Bruno Schulz and Ross MacDonald, and then tried simultaneously, or nearly simultaneously, I guess, to translate that into English that sounded good as English. It was not quite the multi-step process that description implies, though. I was just hearing every sentence as I went along, tuning the Yiddish dial with one hand and the English one with the other, and listening in to that signal coming out of the dark.

I allowed myself to translate certain key Yiddishisms very literally to try to hold onto their chewiness, like when my characters say something like, “He’s been banging me a teakettle about it all day.” Hoping the reader who doesn’t know the phrase “hock mir a tchainek” will get the idea. Will, hopefully, feel the meaning while hearing the sound. I tried very hard to “translate” everything, though. For the most part the only actual Yiddish words you encounter in the text are those which are not being used with their usual or literal meaning. Slang terms, for example. I used some real Yiddish criminal slang, and made a lot up. So that the word “sholem” in the world of the book means “gun.” I don’t translate it, because the literal translation of “sholem” is “peace.” It’s a pun on piece/peace, obviously. Somewhere I read that a lot of criminal slang in Yiddish was based on punning bilingual homonyms. So I made up one of my own.

What was the question, again?

This is an explicitly Jewish novel, but it is also—and perhaps first and foremost—a hard-boiled detective novel. There are obviously many non-Jewish sources and models for the latter, but are there any Jewish ones? In other words, might this novel, as a hard-boiled detective novel, be participating in a Jewish literary sub-tradition?

That is a very good question. Actually, you have hit on one of the secret motivations behind this book, as well as behind my swashbuckling adventure, Gentlemen of the Road, and Kavalier and Clay and The Final Solution, too. Which is to look at some of the genres or “sub-traditions” of popular culture and make their Jewish roots or antecedents explicit; or where there is no strong Jewish tradition, to take that genre and Judaize it and see what happens. In the case of the hard-boiled detective novel, none of the great masters or key practitioners were Jews, as far as I’m aware. Chandler, Hammett, the MacDonalds, Spillane... goyim all. If you look at science fiction, you see Jews everywhere—Asimov, Avram Davidson, Robert Silverberg, Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison. But in the American private eye tradition (with a couple of exceptions), not so much. Jerome Charyn is a big exception, he’s a wonderful writer squarely in both the hard-boiled and the Jewish tradition.

A key moment for me, the real light-bulb moment of this novel, came when I picked up a collection of Isaac Babel and immediately felt the kinship between his prose style and his narrative stance and those of the American hard-boiled tradition. The use of outrageous but perfect simile, the handling of violence with aplomb, the wiseass chill—I heard Chandler in it, but it was a Jewish voice, too.

I’m guessing that there will be some comparisons made between your novel and another recent “what if” novel of Jewish history: Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Yet whereas Roth’s book is a historical novel set during a transformed version of the 1930s and 1940s, your novel takes place during the early years of this century. What was it like to imagine a present different from our own? How much while constructing this imaginary society did you find yourself simultaneously trying to understand the historical moment that we are actually living through right now?

I tried to be very deliberate and careful in my reconfiguring and reimagining of history; I constructed maps, charts, plans, mock-histories. It felt like a much more accessible, a more possible, way of looking at the world that we live in now, than actually trying to sit down and say, “I’m going to write a novel about the current state of the Jews and the world as we know it.” Like most writers, like most people, I guess, I have this intuitive sense of the might-have-been, the how-did-I-get-to-this-point, the midnight impulse to lie in bed, run over your life, and see where the turning points were. We are all wired to ask, what if? But that question is always in the service of trying to get a-hold of how things came to the pass they have arrived at. So I had this intuitive certainty that if I told the story well, and figured out the world I was trying to imagine, and did a good job of that, then inevitably it would reflect on our world, make certain aspects of it stand out more clearly than they might if I just took them on directly.

I don’t understand the impulse of setting an alternate history novel in the past the way Roth did. The whole point of alternate history, to me, is to concoct, thereby, an alternate present. To set off the present by means of comparing it to its hitherto unknown freakish twin. I thought Roth pulled his punch at the end of that novel, spent too much time in the past. I wondered if he was aware of Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and was afraid that if he came too far forward into the scary “reality” of a judenrein America, he would bump up against Mr. Dick.

This novel imagines a semi-autonomous Jewish society, and as such, at least for me, the actual, present-day autonomous Jewish society, the state of Israel, constantly shadowed (and even haunted) my reading of your Yiddish homeland in Sitka, Alaska. To what extent while working on this novel did you find yourself confronting Israel as one possible model for the Jewish encounter with political sovereignty? Moreover, and without giving away any of the plot, my hunch is that the more ardently Zionist members of your readership might take issue with various far-from-trivial details in your story. Is this something you’ve considered or even anticipated? If so, how would you respond to their criticism?

Please, like I don’t have enough tsuris without having to create imaginary antagonists and then write dialogue for them! The closer the world in my novel comes to feeling like a real world, a possible world, the more it will be, like our world, open to interpretation. Anyway, I would argue with you that in fact it’s the utter lack of sovereignty of my Jews that haunts them, teases them, dooms them. I could imagine an ardent Zionist who might read my novel and say, “See what happens when there’s no Israel! See what a mess those Arabs made of Palestine!” I could also imagine him telling me to drop dead. But I won’t, okay?