Can biographers really know their subjects fully? Was Mark Twain right when he said that “a man’s real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself?” And what about Freud who went even further: “Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishment, and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had.”
Well, if biographical truth is not to be had, if a self is actually unknowable, can we at least analyze the work of the artist or the writer or the activist as a clue to the meaning of the life? Here a biographer is challenged by the postmodernists or deconstructionists who argue for “the death of the author,” and who see texts and even behavior as totally independent entities, neither of which tells us anything about their human creators. Not surprisingly, I take a somewhat different position. I acknowledge the existence of authors. Of course, the writing of any particular author may not be – and very often is not – autobiographical. Indeed, biographers, or general readers for that matter, who concentrate on ferreting out the self-referential, often miss the satisfaction of immersing themselves in the creative imagination of the writer. In any case, for me, authors are neither absent nor entirely inscrutable. Why otherwise would I have undertaken a biography of so prolific a writer as Fast, whose early writings seemed to have moved an entire generation of Jews in the direction of political liberalism, or of Irving Howe, who in his literary criticism and teaching fought fiercely against the “death of the author” school?
Of course, all of us remain partially hidden and variegated, and in cases like Howe or Fast, perhaps even more complexly so. In writing about these men then, I make no claim to definitiveness nor do I use a narrative strategy that projects a unified persona. Fast, for example, presents a case of extraordinary social mobility, a man who became wealthy writing more than 150 stories, 20 screenplays, and nearly 100 books, several selling in the tens of millions of copies; but he also forever carried within himself characteristics and memories of having been a poor street urchin. Moreover, Fast was not only a writer, but a brother, father, husband, son of immigrants, a Jew, a Communist, an “unfriendly witness,” a prisoner, and a Hollywood personality.
Many selves, many roles – several of which led Fast into inconsistency and even apparent contradiction. Still, the historian as biographer, at least this one, believes that human beings are not just a Babel of voices, and that there are such things as individuals who are knowable, at least in part. Even playwright Samuel Beckett, the prince of obscurity and ambiguity, eventually wrote, “In the place where I have always found myself… it is no longer wholly dark or wholly silent.”
“Are you a professor?” asked the woman sitting next to me on the plane from Israel to New York. She’d been eyeing my laptop screen on and off for most of the flight, as I did a final polish on my translation of Israel and the Cold War, a punctiliously-researched tome by Joseph Heller of the Hebrew University. Heller’s the professor, I’m the translator. He spent years sifting through the dark corners of archives around the world to gather the material in his book. I get the glory of being thought a historian without having looked at a single document.
Yes, I write my own books, but try buying groceries with that. My family gets fed thanks to books that other people write, people who need my help to present their ideas to the public. Sometimes I translate in the simple sense of the word—that is, recast a Hebrew work in English. But the specific niche I’ve developed over the years is that of translator/editor, or perhaps bilingual book doctor would be a better term. That means I don’t just transfer prose from one language to another but also help the author rewrite the book.
Of course, the substance remains that of the scholar. But substance needs presentation. I feel privileged to have helped bring the work of Israeli scholars before the English-speaking world while making them more reader-friendly books than they would otherwise have been.
While it’s hardly ideal, the pressures are such that I often work on two or three book translations or edits at the same time, alongside my own writing. Right now I’m translating a book on the Mossad by Ronen Bergman of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, and a book about Eliezer Gruenbaum, a Jewish Communist who became a kapo at Auschwitz, by the historian Tuvia Friling.
On top of that, I’m editing the English version of one of the Israeli publication phenomena of the past year. Yuval Noah Harari’s history of the world, from humankind’s evolution in Africa to the present day, has been a bestseller in Hebrew. It’s based on the survey course he teaches, which has become one of the university’s most popular classes.
Harari’s book covers a lot of ground that I’ve written about in my career as a journalist covering research and science, so as I edit I disagree, debate, and argue points with him. Like most of my clients, Harari appreciates this deep involvement in his work. I am, of course, an amateur scholar, not a real one, so it’s the client who makes the final decisions about the book’s ideas and arguments. But it’s a real pleasure to engage in disputations with my authors.
And, of course, I learn a great deal in the process. Almost enough to be taken for a professor myself.
For historians, writing biography presents a number of challenges. One of the more important comes from scholars who tend to classify biography as “an inferior type of history.” For example, three years ago the American Historical Society staged a roundtable on “biography as history,” invitations to which included the following: “For a long time historians have been ambivalent about the genre of biography…. Many are skeptical of the capacity of biography to convey the kind of analytically sophisticated interpretation of the past that academics have long expected.”
But we biographers, even those such as myself who want to write cross-over books accessible to the educated lay public, don’t simply chart the course of a life from womb to tomb; we examine our subjects in dialectical relationship to the multiple worlds they inhabit, social, political, and cultural. My two subjects, Howard Fast and Irving Howe, for example, rose from immigrant poverty to eminence and wealth, and in Fast’s case immense wealth. Both were also political activists, and literary figures. And both bore the privileges, burdens, and complexities of being Jewish. Both were also involved, directly and indirectly, with events important to shaping the world of the twentieth century. It would have been next to impossible to neglect social context in biographies of these men.
Biographers are also often accused of voyeurism and sensationalism. Indeed, perhaps as acts of self-defense, several women and men of note have written their own biographies or memoirs – Howe wrote at least one, depending how you count; Fast, two – conceivably as a way of making one’s own case before a prosecutorial or gossip-mongering historian/biographer might appear on the scene. Elsa Morante, the Italian writer and wife of novelist Alberto Moravia, left a warning for biographers: To expose “the private life of a writer is gossip,” she said, “and gossip no matter about whom offends me.” Janet Malcolm, the controversial American journalist goes further, characterizing biographers as burglars, parasites, and obsessive stalkers who trespass and injure. Continue reading
My Dad and I never watched the Superbowl together. Nor the NBA championships, the World Cup, or the World Series. In my family, the only person who watched sports on television was my grandmother, who never missed an Indians or Browns game. So I grew up with a warped sense of manhood. Watching guys throw balls around was for old ladies. My Dad and I did our small-screen-mediated male bonding on election night.
So I’m happy to report that when this post appears I’ll be on my way from Jerusalem to Denver to spend my first election night with Dad in more than three decades. Tuesday night he and I will be munching pizza and popcorn as we watch the returns come in and tally electoral votes and Senate seats.
Dad, a longtime newspaper reporter, was my first coach in political analysis, as well as in writing. His politics are liberal Democrat; his style is terse, simple, and to the point (he would disapprove of the previous semicolon and these parentheses). So it’s not surprising that I occasionally try my hand at political satire. At its best, it’s a genre that forces readers think about their beliefs in a new way. Furthermore, it can help those of us jaded by the horserace coverage that all too often passes for political journalism to remember that politics is as much a necessary part of our lives as love is, and that it’s important that we get both right.
That’s what I tried to do in my latest “Necessary Stories” piece, published in the current issue of the Jerusalem Report. Called “Persuasion,” it’s a love story in the style of Jane Austen, set in the run-up to the current election.
The Jerusalem Report has given me a platform that few writers enjoy and for which I’m extremely grateful (especially to Eetta Price-Gibson, who offered me the perch during her tenure as editor of the magazine). Once each month I get three pages where I can write whatever I want—memoir, satire, or short story. As I’ve transitioned in recent years from writing journalism and non-fiction into writing fiction, it’s given me a place to experiment with subjects and techniques. Some of my Necessary Stories are funny, some sad, some wistful. By arrangement with the magazine, they are also available in full on my blog, South Jerusalem.
If you like the latest one, you might also sample “Plane Story,” about an encounter with strangers and storytelling on a Delta flight, and “Bananas,” a tale from the immigrant camp that used to occupy the part of Holon where some of my in-laws live. I also recommend “Winter“ and “Spring,” the first two installments in a quartet of army stories collectively called Duties of the Heart. “Summer” and “Autumn” are too long for my three pages in the Report and are currently seeking homes elsewhere.
Don’t tell Dad about all those ridiculously long sentences in “Persuasion.” He’d give me a stern lecture on style and we might miss some key returns and projections.
Soon after learning my late grandmother’s family lived in Nachlaot, I accepted an invitation for Shabbat dinner from sweet friends, Mottle and Batya Wolfe. Spending Shabbat in Nachlaot definitely felt like the most fitting way to honor my newly discovered roots. When I shared how much I wanted to spend more time where my grandmother grew up, the Wolfes seemed to read my mind and invited me to their seder. I was so touched by their invitation, but Passover was four months away. I was still touring for Cool Jew in what was fast becoming the Energizer Bunny of book tours. It just kept going and going… Could I really return so soon?
At my next stop, Limmud UK, the answer effortlessly appeared. Several participants suggested I present at Limmud Berlin and Limmud Amsterdam, both slated for May. I could fly early to Europe, add on a trip to Israel for Passover and return in time for both conferences. I would barely be home between now and then but I was used to that (!) and Passover in Nachlaot was clearly where I was meant to be… It just kept getting validated. Was it the luck of Cool Jew, my grandmother’s orchestrations on high or something else at work?
The time flew by. Finally, I landed at Mottle and Batya’s seder. They urged me to share my story again with their guests. I had long known my grandmother was born in Israel but I didn’t know she grew up in Nachlaot, near Ohel Moshe Street, where it meets Rehov Aryeh Levin, named for the great tzaddik of Jerusalem. The story kept growing… Continue reading