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A Cold, Comic Heart

Leslie Epstein, the author of the new novel Ice Fire Water, talks about Hollywood, the Holocaust, and why his critics are nuts

October 20, 1999

Ice Fire WaterLeslie Epstein's latest novel, Ice Fire Water, reprises the indefatigable Leib Goldkorn -- nonagenarian, flautist, Holocaust survivor, incessant jokester, and globetrotter. This time around his adventures are amorous, as he courts a gaggle of disparate women, among them the Olympian Sonja Heine, Carmen Miranda, the critic Michiko Kakutani, and a sex-line operator and former porn model named Crystal Knight. Goldkorn first came onto the scene in 1976 with Epstein's The Steinway Quintet, which Geoffrey Wolff called "a novella of genius." In that book, Goldkorn was already in his seventies, trying to make his way as a musician in the decaying bastion of Jewry on New York's Lower East Side. From the start Goldkorn's life was a riotous melding of surreal encounters and shirtsleeve emotions, a concoction seemingly at odds with Epstein's soothingly thoughtful manner. However, as Epstein talks about the topics he seems to mull over most -- literature and his complex Jewish past -- he becomes more and more frank, and it becomes clear that Goldkorn is perhaps something greater than a favorite character: he is an alter ego.

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Epstein was raised on storytelling. His father and uncle were the legendary screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein, who penned such classics as Yankee Doodle Dandy, Arsenic and Old Lace, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Casablanca. From Hollywood, Epstein went to Yale and then to Oxford, on a Rhodes Scholarship. He is the author of seven novels, including King of the Jews, a highly acclaimed book about a Polish ghetto during the Holocaust. Epstein is the director of the Creative Writing Program at Boston University.

He spoke recently with The Atlantic Monthly's Daniel Smith.

Leslie Epstein
Leslie Epstein   

What made you want to bring Goldkorn back?

I never let go of him. The Steinway Quintetwas written in 1975, or something like that, and then there was the book called Goldkorn Talesin the 1980s that used the Quintetas a beginning, with two more tales. It looks like every fourteen years he keeps coming back, and he may yet come back again. Who knows?

Did his voice come back easily?

That voice is never too far from me, I think. I had put him on a nice shelf, but I had never lost sight of him. I never had him out of my hearing, either.

In all of your works on Goldkorn, the humor is juxtaposed with serious tragedies, such as the death of Goldkorn's family at Dachau and the supposed stillbirth of his daughter. Henri Bergson said that comedy requires "a momentary anesthesia of the heart." Do you agree with this? Do we need to suspend our emotions in order to laugh at the unlaughable?

It's a good quote, but I would go even further and say the anesthesia isn't temporary. It's what the comic requires all the time. Chekov said that every true writer has to have a heart of ice. I think every true writer knows that. There's a certain objectivity that one has to cultivate, a certain coldness, even though one tries to retain warmth at the same time. So I know what Bergson means.

When you are writing something comic about a subject as daunting as the Holocaust, do you not feel the tragedy of the situation?

Of course I feel it. For example, when I was doing research for my Holocaust novel, King of the Jews,I went every day to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on Fifth Avenue and Eighty-sixth Street. Every day I'd read these books filled with horror and sadness and tragedy, and I had to ask myself -- Are you going to do this book or not?Part of you simply shuts down, a kind of psychic shutter closes around your heart. And that enables you to get through it. Now, that may be a bad bargain in the long run. I think I've suffered certain consequences in my own writing and in my own life as a result of the fact of shutting down certain faculties. Once you draw that shutter closed it's not so easy to open it again.

So tragedy and comedy can't live side by side at the same time?

Absolutely they can. They do it in my work, don't they? Whether one can live fruitfully with both is another issue. But they can certainly live together in literature. The greatest literature has always been a combination of comedy and tragedy. I don't understand the people who don't see this, since the greatest of novels for me is probably Don Quixote,which is a wonderful mixture of tragedy and comedy. And my favorite writer is probably Dostoevsky, the most tragic, and most hilarious, of all novelists.

Do you think it's necessary to laugh at something as overwhelmingly daunting as the Holocaust? Does it in any way undercut the gravity of the event?

The word "necessary" bothers me a little. I don't know about necessity. In the Warsaw ghetto there was an archivist, Ringelbaum, who buried in milk cans records of the ghetto. When these cans were discovered after the war, they contained, among a lot of other things, jokes. The archivists had collected all the jokes that the Jews themselves were telling in the ghetto. When you have a collection of Jews you're always going to have a collection of jokes, even in circumstances like that. In King of the Jewsthere are dozens of jokes. I don't think I made up a single one. I made up the humor of the book, but not the formal jokes. They were all taken from Jewish sources on the spot, like Ringelbaum. King of the Jewswas attacked for its tone and for its not being a sacred treatment of the Holocaust. I think my critics are nuts. They don't understand that the humor they criticize came from the Jews themselves.

With the recent celebration of Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful,it's hard not to talk about film when discussing these issues. Do you think it's taken too long for the theme of humor and the subject of the Holocaust to merge in that medium?

It certainly took too long to do me any good. Look, Benigni's film stinks. But it doesn't stink because of the humor. It stinks because it's sentimental. That's the real sin, I think: sentimentalizing the Holocaust and asking for emotions that haven't been earned. There's a much better film, a very similar film, called Seven Beauties,by Lina Wertmuller. It's much funnier and it's without an ounce of sentimentality. It is probably the greatest fictional film of the Holocaust (although I should mention that Shoahand The Sorrow and the Pityare equally great films). Wertmuller's film is the one that Benigni's should be compared to, and when you do compare them, as I have recently -- I went out and saw Seven Beautiesagain -- the Benigni film simply withers away.

You have a lot of personal experience with Hollywood. Do you feel that Hollywood did not do enough to expose the Holocaust to America and to spur on outrage?

That is my view. My previous novel, just before Ice Fire Water,was a book called Pandemonium,and that's part of its subject matter. From Pearl Harbor to V-J Day -- throughout all the years of World War II -- the word "Jew," or "Jewish," was mentioned in only one film made in Hollywood that dealt with domestic affairs or, for all I know, that dealt with the war at all. That film, I'm proud to say, was written by my uncle and my father. It is called Mr. Skeffington,and in it Claude Rains explains to his daughter that it would be better for her to live with her mother, Bette Davis, because he's Jewish. At the time the film was criticized both within and outside of Hollywood. It was also criticized, shamefully, by Jewish groups, whose view was basically "don't make waves." So I'm very critical of Hollywood's response to the Holocaust. There was no response to the Holocaust, until long after the fact. There were a few exceptions. The writer, Ben Hecht, for example. He staged a rally, a demonstration of protest, at Madison Square Garden. But the movie moguls wanted nothing to do with the suffering of their own people. Jews in Hollywood turned their back on it, as Jews in Israel did, too.

Did your father and uncle express their helplessness to do more?

Well, first, they did something when no one else did, and second, they wrote Casablanca,and the first word in Casablancais "refugees." I asked my uncle to what extent this movie dealt directly with Judaism, and he said, "Isn't it obvious?" He pointed to the Bulgarian couple who gamble, and then to Rick, who fixes the wheel so that they can escape. My uncle said, "Isn't it clear they were Jewish?" One's critical of them for not making them Jewish outright, but probably they wouldn't have been allowed to do that by Roosevelt's overseers of the industry, or by Jack Warner, either. Ironically, of course, the Bulgarian Jews were the only Jews who weren't touched in that part of Europe. The Bulgarian people were protective toward their own Jews. It turned out my uncle and father chose the wrong country. Of course, one has to be a little exculpatory when saying all of this because the full gravity of what was happening to the Jews was not clear in 1942.

You yourself were a child in California during the Holocaust.

The war for me was a matter of the Japanese, not the Germans. I was in Hollywood looking across the Pacific. I remember the barrage balloons off Santa Monica pier. The airplanes I tried to memorize from my little book were Japanese. Our gardener who disappeared, and one of my schoolmates who disappeared -- taken off to camps, I guess -- were Japanese, not Germans. And the war movies I most liked were Sands of Iwo Jimaand The Fighting Lady,not the subtle sophisticated Conrad Veidt films. Growing up, I had little sense of the Holocaust at all.

Did your lack of concern as a child make it necessary for you to confront the Holocaust head on in your fiction, almost as something of a penance?

When I was a freshman in high school -- which would be 1952 or 1953 -- I wrote my first short story. It was about a crowd of people who gather in this square and from the Spanish roofs and accents you realize it's a square in Buenos Aires, or somewhere in Argentina. The whole story -- which was not very dramatic and not very good -- is about this crowd gathering and growing, growing, looking up at this balcony, and then, at the climax of the story, the balcony doors swing open and a man comes forward and stands before the crowd, looks down, and the crowd shouts, "Viva, Viva Hitler!" Now, that was 1952 or so. Bormann and Eichmann and Mengele and others were helped by a network, in part operated through the Catholic Church, to get to Argentina, where they were very happily welcomed and smoked their cigars and led the high life. But there was also a rumor that Hitler had escaped from Germany and was living there. Somehow, as a child, that rumor seeped into my consciousness. I was a kid of fourteen. Where did that knowledge of Hitler and the Holocaust come from? It didn't come from, as you say, any wartime experiences. It was through a kind of osmosis. I've actually written about this, I think, something about "the Jews know the fate of the Jews as they know the weight of gravity in their bones." It's a kind of osmosis from Jew to Jew that tells us the fate of our people. It starts with seeing a picture in Lifemagazine, say, or hearing a whisper in a conversation at the dinner table, or seeing those old newsreels of the bodies being pushed by British bulldozers at Bergen-Belsen. Though I had been looking toward Asia and had a very sheltered childhood, my first story had that very specific form of gravity in it.

Is there, do you think, survivors' guilt for those who aren't strictly "survivors"?

I'm not aware of it myself. Nor should I be. There's a wonderful book by Karl Jaspers that talks about the metaphysics and degrees of guilt. At one point he says, speaking of Germans specifically, that every single one is guilty who did not do everything he could to stop this from happening. Well, it's not just Germans. I've already spoken of American Jews. Roosevelt himself -- I exempt his wife, Eleanor, who did everything she could -- did not do everything he could have done. He had larger goals, I think -- to win the war -- but he could have done a lot more. Children can't share that guilt. I was a child during the war. But I think most of America, in an attenuated way -- well, I don't want to say that. Without America, I probably wouldn't be sitting here. Germany would have ruled the world, and only Pat Buchanan would be enjoying himself today.

Jonathan Dee, in a recent Harper'sessay, criticized the use of historical figures in fiction as "literary graverobbing." He claims that the device is something of a creative cop-out. Historical figures -- very prominent ones, like Carmen Miranda and Toscanini, and also Hitler -- figure largely in your new novel. Any thoughts on Dee's criticism?

It's simply insane. What about Shakespeare's historical dramas, and half his tragedies, too? They're based on Holinshed's Chronicles,or real figures, sometimes famous ones, like Caesar, whom his English audience would have known well. The greatest novel written, I've said, is Don Quixote, but right up there with it would be War and Peace.If Hitler figures in my work, Napoleon figures in Tolstoy's. I can't imagine what Dee is thinking. Go back to the Greek plays, which dealt with real and mythical people. Was Homer robbing the grave? Well, let's hand out more shovels.

I think Dee's main point was that the great benefit of fiction is that you can get into the heads of the characters fully, and experience what they are feeling, whereas with historical figures the writer's imagination is colored by previous knowledge of those characters.

Why not say enhancedby, or enrichedby, previous knowledge of them? Part of the pleasure is seeing the turns one makes on that previous knowledge and the rearrangement of that knowledge. I don't think I can buy it.

You also use Michiko Kakutani, the New York Timesbook critic, as a character.

Yes, I do. Prominently.

Has she read Ice Fire Water?

She claims not to have. Harper'smagazine published a whole chapter of the novel, and I know she was approached and she said, "Oh, I heard about it." But I think she must have read it. And I hope she enjoyed it. I think she's a great critic and she's treated gently in the book, unlike Anatole Broyard, who's turned into Anatola Boudoir; and Richard Eder, who's turned into Bitch Adder; and the previous Goldkorncritic of mine in The New York Times,an envious chap, I think -- David Evanier -- he turns out to be Diva Evian in the book. So I have fun with my critics. Michiko's a different story. She gave my previous books sensitive reviews, and naturally, every author falls in love with such a critic, and that love is expressed through Goldkorn.

I think you've already hinted at the answer, but do you read reviews that seriously?

Alas, yes.

Does it take long to bounce back from a poor review?

Alas, yes. With King of the JewsI went through this terrible thing with these critics. We sent the book out for a blurb to a famous historian and she wrote back, "Not only did Hitler kill six million Jews, now Leslie Epstein is here to dance on their graves." I can quote that word for word twenty years later, as I can Anatola Boudoir's review. He talked about the characters being "rats, rats, lost in the maze of history, perhaps, but rats nonetheless." As every writer knows, you remember those horrible reviews much longer than you remember the great ones.

Earlier in our conversation you hinted that we haven't seen the end of Leib Goldkorn ...

Oh, my heavens no! No, no, I have another one in mind, when he'll probably be about a hundred and four.

I can't picture him dying.

Well, I hope he never does.

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Daniel Smith is an Atlantic Monthlystaff editor.

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