The Hasak-Lowy/Neugeboren Letters
By TODD HASAK-LOWY and JAY NEUGEBOREN
And now, a tête-à-tête on the current state of the Jewish short
story. In this corner, we have Todd Hasak-Lowy, a talented rookie writer.
Michael Chabon calls the tales in Hasak-Lowy's debut, The Task of This
Translator, "easy in their
modernity, classic in their authoritative tone, and secretly fitted with deep
structures of irony and pity." In the other corner stands Jay Neugboren, a
distinguished literary veteran whose work has been collected in The Best
American Short Stories and O.
Henry Prize Stories. His
latest volume is News from the New American Diaspora and Other Tales of
Exile, a wordy title for a worthy volume.
But enough with the introductions. Gentlemen, touch gloves and get ready to kibbitz.
I read your stories, and I thought I’d just jump right in with two mostly
unrelated sets of questions:
Without getting into the whole tricky matter of “What is Jewish (or
Jewish-American) fiction?” I think people will agree that your collection is
clearly Jewish. I say this with some confidence, since virtually all the
stories in this collection are about explicitly Jewish characters—a rabbi,
Russian-Jewish immigrants, an Israeli living abroad, a boy at a Jewish summer
camp—in Jewish settings. I don’t know much about how this collection was put
together, but considering that almost all the stories were published
previously, my hunch is that these stories were written over a few years, if
not more, and that you probably wrote other, quite possibly not Jewish-themed,
pieces during this time. So my first set of questions: at what point in the
writing process do you think, decide, or become aware of the fact that you're
writing a piece of Jewish fiction? At what stage did you consider publishing
these stories together in a collection whose title more or less makes their
Jewish content explicit? Were there other pieces you wrote during this time
that resonate in other ways (thematically, stylistically, etc.) with these
stories, but which were kept out of this book because they were not
Jewish-themed? Do you think putting all these stories together, and thus
building a very “Jewish” manuscript, made finding a publisher easier or more
difficult? I ask these questions, because my book is a whole lot less obviously
Jewish. I have one story ("On the Grounds of the Complex Commemorating the
Nazis' Treatment of the Jews") that is overtly Jewish beginning to end,
but beyond that the Jewish content of my book is, for lack of a better word,
latent. Indeed, the most Jewish thing about my book is probably the biography
and profession of its author (I teach . Part of me really wants to position my
fiction squarely in such Jewish territory, but other parts of me are reluctant.
One thing that really stood out for me, especially in the first half of the
book, was a steady thematic focus or subtext that had nothing particularly
Jewish about it at all: namely, marital friction. Every one of the first five
stories, as well as a few later on, features a marriage that is either in the
process of ending or seems in danger of falling apart. What does it mean that
these two clusters of themes—diaspora/exile, on the one hand, and failed
marriage, on the other—come together so regularly in this collection? Is one
the symptom or sign of the other? And while there is something clearly Jewish
about diaspora, is there anything inherently or even largely Jewish about how
the relationships in your stories deteriorate and eventually collapse?
Alright, your turn.
My questions to yours: Are we all descendants of Kafka? Your stories may not,
nominally, be about Jews, but—cf. Freud and his statement about being a
psychological Jew—are there characters in your stories you think of as being psychological Jews? Is there a
particular style of obsessing that is Jewish? (A psychologist I know talks
often about different "styles" of schizophrenia: Jewish, black,
Latino, Italian, etc.). Have you read Nicholson Baker and Stanley Elkin, and
are you aware of the affinities of your fiction to theirs?
I ask these questions because what I am most aware of when reading your stories
is the how wonderfully absurd (Kafkaesque? Elkinesque? Bakeresque?) they are—in
their premises, in their execution, and in their detailed obsessivness (or
rather: in your ability to get into the minds of people in the grip of
obsessions), whether about dieting (and an organization that caters to the
wealthy by giving them virtual fulltime companion/bodyguards), or the Oakland
Raiders, or a lost wallet, or genocide.
But the writer who most comes to mind when I read your fictions is José
Saramago: like him, you bore endlessly into your givens—the riffs on Body Mass
Index, NASDAQ, the food and cash register in Yad Vashem—and elaborate them for
us in delightful, chilling ways.
To your questions: Yes, the stories were written over a period of years, and
yes I wrote many (and novels, and nonfiction books) in between. When I published
my previous (second) collection of stories, Don’t
Worry About the Kids, in 1997, I left out a half dozen of the stories in Diaspora because I wanted to save them
for this collection, knowing there were some other tales I would write that
would, with the half-dozen saved, make for a more thematically unified set.
(This did not make finding a publisher easier.) Also: I don’t ever think of what
I write as being a piece of "Jewish fiction." Sometimes my stories
are about Jews and sometimes they’re not. Nor do I think of myself as a
"Jewish writer" (cf. Bellow, who, when asked, replied that he was an American writer). At the same time, I
never deny that I’m Jewish or that, with some frequency, I write about people
and matters Jewish. These are things I know about—from life (e.g., I was president
of my synagogue), from reading, from imaginings; to set any fiction in such a
cubicle (a "Jewish novel," a "Jewish story"), however, is
to treat literature as sociology, and thereby to do a disservice to what makes
fiction—yours, Baker’s, Bellow’s, Saramago’s—live: which is the conjuring up of
a world that has had no existence until you set words down on a page.
What interested me about failed marriages is how they seem (merely?) instances
of a general (and particularly American?) fraying of community, identity, and
family—of how—as in your stories!—we
all seem to be free agents increasingly isolated and disconnected from one