Rough around the edges

Yoram Kaniuk’s autobiographical novel captures the ecstasy and the heartache of his 10 years in New York.

yoram kaniuk_521 (photo credit: (David Rubinger/Yedioth Ahronoth))
yoram kaniuk_521
(photo credit: (David Rubinger/Yedioth Ahronoth))
LIFE ON SANDPAPERBy Yoram KaniukDalkey Archive Press424 pages$15.99
There are some wounds that never heal; they simply permeate the psyche more brutally with time. Trauma of that sort seems to have to have befallen novelist Yoram Kaniuk, who fought fiercely and bravely in the War of Independence, after which he fled for Manhattan to recover and pursue his already fading dreams of becoming a famous painter.
Kaniuk is a riveting author who bombards you with fanciful verbal flourishes interspersed with tiny diamonds of selfclarity that will rock your soul. This acclaimed writer of more than 30 works of fiction has now written an autobiographical novel based on his time in New York. Although Kaniuk is now 81, he writes with a palpable immediacy that captures the narcissism and manic instability of his tumultuous youth. Kaniuk isn’t always likable and his morality is sometimes fluid, but the reader can’t help but feel for him and the big chunk of his heart that has already been ripped out by warfare.
His opening line is telling: “There had been a war and I was wounded. When I got back I was remote and detached from everything, didn’t speak for days and would often draw on the walls because I’d killed people before I kissed a girl.”
Kaniuk’s love affair with New York is instantaneous. He arrived during the 1950s and would remain there a decade before returning to Israel. He was transfixed by the merriment that seems almost infectious, the poets, intellectuals and jazz musicians who filled the cafes in Lower Manhattan each night. He rubbed shoulders with many of the greats, including Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, with whom he had a brief fling.
He got by on odd jobs, painting apartments or selling one of his paintings, anything that would allow him the freedom to roam around unanchored to anyone but his best friend, Gandy, who had summoned him to New York. It was a crazy time and Kaniuk describes his introduction to the big city with affection.
But learning how to love another person was much harder for him. He admits to having spent endless hours talking to whoever would listen about his passion for Rembrandt or his obsession with figuring out how the light effect in Vermeer’s work was accomplished, but seemed to shrivel away from intimacy with others, preferring to observe them closely either in adulation or disdain.
When alone, he would paint ecstatically with brilliant new colors and enamels, believing that if he tried hard enough, he might be able to somehow capture the feeling of jazz on canvas. He was always disappointed with the results.
He was always restless, looking over his shoulder for something or someone that was never there. His affair with Billie Holiday still stings. He would endure her frequent insults about his kissing and slights about his constant harangues about poetry and painting which bored her senseless. Kaniuk’s words were drowning her and occasionally drown the reader who senses he often uses them as a peculiar form of selfpunishment, an annihilation of sorts that keeps him from getting closer to deeper truths. We can hear his angry sadness and the cynicism that has taken hold of him.
When he meets his first wife Lee, a professional dancer, there is a brief moment that seems hopeful for both of them but is eventually poisoned by his repeated affairs, many with her close friends. Still, he writes with a simmering nostalgia of their first encounter:
“Lee’s clowning and dancing sparked a tiny flare of happiness in me, from the beginning there was some kind of Russian grace in her and she shifted between pathos and laughter... she had in her the loveliness of beauty, the expression of a woman-girl who already knew the world. There was something in her that I needed then. A disconcerting expression that would meet mine and I knew what she was about to say before she said it. I guessed at her endearing sadness.”
Kaniuk says little about God or Judaism or Israel in this work, but one senses that being Jewish is an indelible part of his identity and his fury and even his alienation. One of his most endearing recollections involves observing the clashes between the Yiddish and Hebrew intellectuals who would sit at opposing tables in cafes fighting about which language should reign supreme.
Kaniuk writes: “Their expressions bore a sadness that they made into a poetic sadness, even the way they stirred their tea was poetic. Burning eyes, some kind of piety and purity. They drank their tea and every other minute a heartrending oy vey would ring out. They chain-smoked and the debates at the two tables, each of which refused to acknowledge the other’s experience, concerning the life and death of words. A faulty line in a Hebrew poem would give rise to a bellow of pain or apprehension from the Hebraists and mocking snorts from the Yiddishists.”
Kaniuk ultimately breaks your heart, while infuriating you with his self-destructive urges. He shows us how foolish we all are, how we stumble again and again into the same black hole, only to climb out no wiser about the origins of our own malaise. There are no tidy endings here, no fake attempts at redemption or salvation or transcendence of any sort, just a reckoning with life as one big bloody mess of entanglements that usually end badly.
But perhaps that is Kaniuk’s ultimate message. In one of his earlier books, The Last Jew, one of his characters, Boaz Schneerson, who fought as Kaniuk did in the War of Independence, attempts to describe the irreparable harm the war had done him, claiming, “It’s hard for me to describe the essence of that pain, they’re the strongest yearnings for a person whose death is never grasped. The death is in you, in the chest, the dream, waking, slumbering, grown to somewhere where you have no idea of, and the wakefulness, the emptiness, the waking distress.”
It is this angst that is always present in Kaniuk’s work, along with the ugly truth about the kind of hurts that never heal.