Fiction trove

Matt Nesvisky reviews a stash of new books and finds some gems.

Peter Matthiessen (photo credit: LINDA GIRVIN / RIVERHEAD BOOKS)
Peter Matthiessen
PETER MATTHIESSEN, a widely admired American writer, died at age 86 in April this year just a few days after the publication of “In Paradise.” The novel capped a lengthy career that included the co-founding of the literary journal The Paris Review and the publication of numerous prize-winning works of fiction and non-fiction, perhaps most notably “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” (1965) and “The Snow Leopard” (1978).
In addition to writing, Matthiessen was an environmentalist and Zen instructor (and for a few years a CIA agent). As part of a lifelong exploration of the nature of good and evil, Matthiessen participated in three international Zen retreats and seminars held at Auschwitz. It is just such a gathering, organized by an ex-Orthodox, ex-hippie Jew-Buddhist called Ben Lama that serves as the setting, in 1996, for “In Paradise.”
Matthiessen’s central character is David Clements Olin (né Olinsky), a middle-aged and melancholy American poet and professor of Slavic literature. Olin is not a registered member of the retreat, but an interested if uncommitted and non-religious onlooker.
He’s come to Poland to do research on the Auschwitz memoirist Tadeusz Borowski (“This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen”), to learn more about his own forebears, who were from the nearby town of Oswiecim, and perhaps to gain some insight into the Holocaust. In the course of these pursuits he interacts with many of the retreat participants, who include a rabbi, several Catholic clergy, an Israeli skeptic, a Palestinian youth, camp survivors, children of Nazi war criminals, and various forms of what we might simply call Holocaust hangers-on. Just to complicate matters further, Olin finds himself increasingly drawn to a young Catholic novice who despite herself seems to reciprocate his romantic interest.
If all this sounds like a bulging suitcase of a novel, even if it is a novel as brisk and compact as this one, you are right. But for all of its crammed and often unresolved contents, the whole is held together by absolutely beautiful writing and by a sustained, controlled tone at once sincere and skeptical.
A sample: “As for ‘bearing witness,’ the term strikes his ear as anachronistic and over-earnest. Excepting the few elderly survivors among them, what meaningful witness can any of them bear so many years after the fact? Witness to what, exactly? The emptiness? That silence? What can they hope to offer besides prayer in belated atonement for the guilt of absence, of having failed to share in unimaginable sufferings? Or hope to experience in this dead place beyond unearned gratification or shallow spiritual ambition? Their mission here, however well-intended, is little more than a wave of parting to a ghostly horror already withdrawing into myth.”
By any description, “In Paradise” shouldn’t work; in précis it might even sound off-putting or offensive. In its totality, however, it is deeply thoughtful and moving.
Peter Matthiessen was some writer.
BORIS FISHMAN’S debut novel, “A Replacement Life,” arrived amid a major publicity blitz, pre-publication endorsements from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Jim Harrison and Walter Kirn, comparisons with Malamud, Bellow and Roth, and a front-page rave in The New York Times Book Review. To my shock and awe, for once the hype was justified. “A Replacement Life” is an amazingly accomplished first novel.
Fishman tells the absorbing story of Slava Gelman, who like the author was born in Belarus and raised in the ex-Soviet satellite state of Brooklyn. Slava, who works at a tony Manhattan magazine, is pressured by his grandfather to write for him an application letter for Holocaust restitution from the German government. Problem is, Grandpa had managed to flee eastwards from Minsk and never suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
No matter. Slava forges a terrific biography and a convincing appeal. Word of the successful forgery gets around the Jewish émigré conclave in Brooklyn and beyond. Soon Slava is inundated with requests for similar epistolary services, the phonier the better.
Slava knows he’s doing wrong but can’t refuse the poor aged wretches who seek his help.
It’s a great premise and it’s fleshed out with both humor and pathos, and with a fascinating cast of boisterous characters. Indeed, like the No. 6 subway train at rush hour, “A Replacement Life” arguably has too many characters; amid everything else Slava is involved in two simultaneous romantic entanglements.
But Fishman is a pretty skilled juggler. Best of all is Fishman’s prose style, which in every paragraph shows the honed observational wit of a Sam Lipsyte or a Martin Amis: “Mailbox-sized packs of saltines and tuna-can skyscrapers peered from dusty cupboards – complimentary provisions from the local synagogue. The same dreck piled in Grandfather’s cabinets, only his home nurses made Ukrainian magic from it. On Israel’s wall was a pharmacy calendar, a bottle of Lipitor reclining suggestively in place of a supermodel. There were four identical calendars from other Russian pharmacies neatly stacked underneath, as if Israel were going to do the year over.”
Or: “Yes, they weren’t easy to be near. The mesh bags stuffed with discount tomatoes, the lumbering bodies heedless of traffic, the threadbare emporia that had to traffic in furs and DVDs and manicures to squeeze from the stone of this life the blood of a dollar.
And these were the honest ones. After fifty years of Soviet chatteldom, they had come here… for a little bit longer before packing off to a spot at Lincoln Cemetery, even this impossible to acquire without money being passed under the table.”
I could quote until the cows come back to the kolkhoz. “A Replacement Life” is highly recommended.
DAVID SHRAYER-PETROV, like Boris Fishman, was born in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the US. But Shrayer-Petrov is of an older generation (he was born in 1936) and most of his writing, which includes fiction, poetry, essays, and translations, has appeared in Russian-language journals in Moscow, Paris, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.
Only a few of his novels and story collections have appeared in English, with “Dinner with Stalin” his latest.
Shrayer-Petrov is also a physician and was on the faculty of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island until his recent retirement.
His stories so closely reflect his own life (according to the book’s extensive notes) that they almost resemble blog entries. But he still leaves plenty of room for imagination.
In “Behind the Zoo-Fence,” for example, an ailing rhinoceros in the Moscow zoo helps a young patient in the adjacent hospital regain her health. And in “The House of Edgar Allan Poe,” the narrator’s love life is given a major assist by, of all things, a gold bug. Other stories focus on the tribulations of refuseniks in Leningrad awaiting their exit visas, and Jewish emigrants discovering Italy, the US and Israel. And Shrayer-Petrov certainly hits some fine notes: “Suddenly, from behind the turquoise dome a bright sun slipped out, setting alight the stone crypts surrounding the synagogue.
Grandmother’s pine-yellow casket and the yellow mimosa flowers in Solomon’s arms, and also the yellow sun of those days approaching Passover – everything had merged into a single graceful chant. Up on a birch tree, wrapped in a white prayer shawl striated with black phylacteries, a tomtit twittered like a carefree balalaika.
Everybody walking behind the casket felt relief after the chill and semidarkness of the sanctuary. Solomon thought that it wasn’t the casket that was preparing to transport his grandmother to another world, but a sparkling gold chariot was getting ready to soar into the sky…” “Dinner with Stalin” has its longueurs (maybe too many dinner party reminiscences), but I was glad I stuck with it. The final stories, like “Trubetskoy, Raevsky, Masha Malevich, and the Death of Mayakovsky” and “The Bicycle Race” are among the best.
THE BEST thing about American novelist Zachary Lazar’s latest effort is the title “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” which in fact is lifted, unattributed, from a lugubrious Bob Dylan song and which strains to frame Lazar’s theme, but let’s not quibble.
The book is an ambitious muddle, chiefly narrated by an American crime writer named Hannah Groff who, for reasons never made entirely clear, travels to Israel to investigate the murder of a minor (and fictional) poet. The poet apparently once had an affair with a woman named Gila, a Holocaust survivor, who also once had some sort of relationship with the American gangster Meyer Lansky, who in 1972 failed in his bid to obtain Israeli citizenship and shelter from American law enforcement. Further complicating the narrative, Gila also had an affair with the narrator’s father when Gila was little Hannah’s Hebrew teacher at a temple in Manhattan.
“Immigrant” is told in a salad spinner of fictional and factual fragments, partly Hannah’s diary, partly other writings by her and by the poet, partly chunks of biographical works about Lansky and other mafia figures (these are properly acknowledged), partly photographs, partly newspaper clippings.
There’s an on-again, off-again romance between Hannah and a very sexy Israeli journalist.
Oh, and there are also some remarks about the late American-Israeli artist Ivan Schwebel, who has no connection in the story to anyone else, but let’s not quibble about that either. Schwebel was noted for often conflating imagery from different eras and locales: King David, say, surrounded by IDF soldiers in modern Jerusalem – or maybe in New York.
Schwebel’s work had considerable charm.
For this reader, Lazar’s pastiche didn’t.
“But it was hard to see it as a story,” Lazar’s narrator admits. “The story was too tangled, even as I felt myself getting more and more invested in it.” Lazar frequently writes very well. But he sure gets tangled up in blue.