A conversation with novelist Norman Lebrecht

He is the author of a new book on modern Jewish history during the century before the establishment of the State of Israel, Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947.

Lebrecht in the Galilee, December 2019 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lebrecht in the Galilee, December 2019
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Norman Lebrecht, 71, is well-known to all those interested in classical music and its history. But the scope of his writing and expertise go well beyond that. He is one of the most erudite and authoritative commentators on cultural history and the author of a range of books, from the unique Why Mahler? about how Gustav Mahler’s music has impacted the world, to his award-winning first novel that has just been turned into a new film, The Song of Names, produced by a stellar team led by Francois Girard. The film premiered at the Toronto and London film festivals in the autumn of 2019, and was released in January 2020 in the US.
The London-born Lebrecht is closely connected to Israel, where he studied at a yeshiva (Kol Torah Rabbinical College) in Jerusalem at the age of 16, and later at both Bar-Ilan University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After his graduation, he started working in the Kol Yisrael news department before returning to London in 1972. He married Elbie Spivack, a sculptor and writer, with whom he has three daughters.
Lebrecht worked, inter aliyah, as a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, an assistant editor of the London Evening Standard and a broadcaster on BBC Radio 3. He is the author of a new book on modern Jewish history during the dramatic century before the establishment of the State of Israel. The critically acclaimed book, Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947, was launched in the UK, US and Canada at the end of 2019, and is due to be published this year in Hebrew by Kinnereth, and interestingly, also in Chinese. I asked him about the book in an exclusive interview.
When did you come up with the idea for the book, which comprises a lifetime of material?
As you correctly say, these were ideas developed over half a lifetime. About 30 years ago I asked myself why it was that, of the three-dozen or so individuals who changed the way we see the world between the middle of the 18th and 19th centuries, at least half were Jews? The emergence from the ghetto does not fully explain it. There had to be other factors that produced this flood of ideas. One, in my understanding, was the pressure of anxiety, the fear of expulsion, of extinction. Another was an unconscious background in Talmudic argumentation, which trains the mind to challenge accepted propositions and approach problems from a different perspective. I use the word unconscious in the Freudian sense. Freud himself denied all knowledge of Judaism, yet when the Nazis entered Vienna his first response at the Psychoanalytic Society was to quote, from memory and almost faithfully, the Talmudic story of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai and Vespasian.
How did your work on this book develop? What was your aim?
As the book took shape in my mind over three decades, I made the decision to shine as much light on temporary geniuses – those whose light shone briefly in particular circumstances – as on those who are household names. I also came across quite a few obscure characters who made a significant difference to life on earth, none more so perhaps than Karl Landsteiner who discovered blood groups, or Emanuel Deutsch, the British Museum curator who inspired George Eliot to write Daniel Deronda, the book that first dared to dream the Zionist dream.
How did you make your selection of 55 personalities to demonstrate genius and anxiety, including many interesting figures about whom the public is not aware, while leaving others out – such as Ben-Gurion and Chagall?
The question of who was in and who was left out became almost self-selecting. Ben-Gurion was just another politician, as was Leon Blum. Both were prime ministers at a delicate time but they did not, in my understanding, reconceive the world as we know it. Chagall – fine painter that he was – was not a formative figure in modernism as Modigliani undoubtedly was.
Out of Poland and Lithuania, I mention Isaac Bashevis Singer because I knew him, because he gave Yiddish its only Nobel prize and because the story of his encounter with Begin – which I heard both from him and independently from his son Israel Zamir – touches on a critical fault line in changing Jewish attitudes to the use of language. I also mention Zamenhof, Menahem Mendel Schneerson, Israel Salanter and a few others, but the heavy intellectual and creative lifting in this period was not being done in Poland and on the Baltic but elsewhere in the Jewish world. One could also say that there are not too many Sephardim in the book, though the Ben Ish Hai is critically important, as is the Sephardi influence on figures like Rosenzweig.
Tell me more about your acquaintance with Leah Goldberg, of whom you write with a palpable and gentle love.
I struggled to read Russian literature. The English translations of Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were heavy and unappealing. When I came to Israel at age 16, I found Russian works in Hebrew translations by Leah Goldberg and was struck by the naturalness of her idiom. Without ever meeting her, I was grateful to her for unlocking this vast literary storehouse. She gave a master’s course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in comparative literature and I was determined to study with her. But in September 1969 when I registered, I was told that she was on sick leave. The following January she died of breast cancer. So I never got to meet her, but I was drawn into her world by her late poetry, by her smoky, quizzical outlook on life and love. Once she died, I saw no point in returning to the university.
Thinking about all those outstanding people whom you have met in your life, who did make the most profound impact on you, and why?
As you rightly say, most of them are in the book, if only in the acknowledgments. Gustav Mahler has taken up a considerable chunk of my life.
From the heroes of your book , whose legacy you regard as most important for your personally?
Solomon Schonfeld. When I was a child, he was my role model for a man who got things done, for better or worse. I have never known anyone quite like him.
Returning to your motivation for this book: Was this a book which you always would like to write? Or was it, as you put it, “the sense of otherness is back” in the UK and elsewhere with the manifestation of open antisemitism, that prompted you to write it?
In the course of writing the book over the past two to three years I could not ignore the return of antisemitism in societies where we thought it had been eradicated. The book is, in a certain sense, a tangential response to the recent demonization of Jews. The first review to appear, in The Times, was by a Muslim writer, Tanjil Rashid. He acknowledged: “Claims to have ‘changed the world’ tend to be exaggerations, but Lebrecht’s subtitle, How Jews Changed the World 1847-1947, seems understated”. The world wasn’t changed, it was remade. Jewish inventions – the monotheism of Abraham, the morality of Moses – were the central concepts in the West’s long religious age, but the shibboleths that define our secular era have Jewish origins too.
How much time did it take you to research and write the book, and what was your work on it like?
I have been storing away material for this book for half my life. I have used my own family archives and those of close friends, university libraries, unpublished private papers, obscure books that I dug out in dust-choked bookstores, worldwide travel, intensive conversations. I don’t mean to name drop, but my work has brought me in contact with quite a few of the personalities discussed, from Gustav Mahler’s daughter, to Golda Meir, from Yehudi Menuhin to Leah Goldberg. I was particularly pleased to bring back to life Leo Kestenberg who, more than anyone else, was the engine that created Weimar culture and later tried to reestablish it in Tel Aviv – not to mention the Berlin researcher Magnus Hirschfeld who first identified Tel Aviv as a gay city.
On the working process, I liked all of it: swimming, walking, thinking, reading, arguing, studying, discovering, translating, revising. I think I must have rewritten the opening of this book at least 100 times until I was satisfied.
Who do you perceive as your readers? Were you thinking of Jewish people worldwide, the younger generation, or were you aiming at a wider audience?
I usually have an ‘ideal reader’ in mind when writing a book. Not in this case, however. I had no idea how it would impact on the world, no idea what my agent, my editors and a wider readership would make of it. I cast my bread upon the waters and held my breath for the reactions. So far, they have been overwhelmingly gratifying.