Epstein, Leslie 1938-

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EPSTEIN, Leslie 1938-

PERSONAL: Born May 4, 1938, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Philip (a screenwriter) and Lillian (Targen) Epstein; married Ilene Gradman, November 1, 1969; children: Anya, Paul and Theo (twins). Education: Yale University, B.A., 1960, graduate study, 1963-65, D.F.A., 1967; Oxford University, diploma, 1962; University of California, Los Angeles, M.A., 1963.

ADDRESSES: Office—Creative Writing Program, College of Arts and Sciences, Boston University, 236 Bay State Rd., Boston, MA 02215. Agent—Lane Zachary, Zachary/Shuster/Harmsworth Agency, 1776 Broadway, Ste. 1405, New York, NY 10019.

CAREER: Queens College of the City University of New York, Flushing, lecturer, 1965-67, assistant professor, 1968-70, associate professor, 1970-75, professor of English, beginning 1976; Boston University, Boston, MA, currently director of creative writing program.

MEMBER: International PEN.

AWARDS, HONORS: Rhodes scholarship, 1960-62; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1972; Fulbright fellowship, Council for International Exchange of Scholars, 1972-73; CAPS grant, 1976-77; Guggenheim fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, 1977-78; Most Distinguished Work of Fiction nomination, National Book Critics' Circle, 1979, and notable book citation, American Library Association, 1980, both for King of the Jews: A Novel of the Holocaust.



P. D. Kimerakov, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1975.

King of the Jews: A Novel of the Holocaust, Coward (New York, NY), 1979, reprinted, Handsel Books (New York, NY), 2003.

Regina, Coward (New York, NY), 1982.

Pinto and Sons, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1990.

Pandaemonium, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.

San Remo Drive: A Novel from Memory, Handsel Books (New York, NY), 2003.


The Steinway Quintet Plus Four, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1976.

Goldkorn Tales, Dutton (New York, NY), 1985, published as Goldkorn Tales: Three Novellas, with a new foreword by Frederick Busch and a new preface by Epstein, Southern Methodist University Press (Dallas, TX), 1998.

Ice Fire Water: A Leib Goldkorn Cocktail, Norton (New York, NY), 1999.

Also contributor of stories, articles, and reviews to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Nation, Antaeus, Playboy, and Antioch Review.

SIDELIGHTS: "If writers got gold stars for the risks they took, Leslie Epstein would get a handful," Katha Pollitt wrote in the New York Times Book Review. Epstein's fiction tackles weighty themes with light humor. His first novel, P. D. Kimerakov, is a satire of cold war tensions between the now-defunct Soviet Union and the United States. In a piece for the New York Times Book Review, David Bromwich praised the skillful characterizations and elegant style found in P. D. Kimerakov, but found the humor somewhat forced. But, Bromwich noted, "this defect may be a sign of Leslie Epstein's honesty: he cannot hide the essential grimness of this particular corner of history." The reviewer concluded that while Epstein's tone is at odds with his subject, "one senses in him what is rare enough at any time: the presence of a sly, appealing, grave and humorous talent."

Epstein's next book was a collection of short fiction, The Steinway Quintet Plus Four. The humor in the title story comes through the voice of its narrator, Lieb Goldkorn. Called "a truly enchanting character" by New York Times contributor Michiko Kakutani, Goldkorn personifies the dignified Jewish culture that once inhabited New York City's Lower East Side. He is the pianist in a quintet that plays in the Steinway Restaurant "once a favorite haunt of [actress] Sarah Bernhardt and [Nobel prize-winning physicist Albert] Einstein, but now the lonely relic of a vanished Jewish community," according to Pollitt. Epstein contrasts that faded culture with New York's contemporary atmosphere of violence when two young street toughs, armed and high on drugs, terrorize the Steinway Restaurant and hold its customers and employees hostage for a ridiculous ransom. Throughout the ordeal, Goldkorn remains "at once shrewd and wide-eyed, . . . the perpetual optimist," Pollitt wrote. Her review highlighted the story's deft humor, but Kakutani emphasized that the author makes a powerful statement on his deeper theme as well: "In its juxtaposition of Old World culture and contemporary violence, [The Steinway Quintet is] an organic and wholly complete work of art."

Lieb Goldkorn is also featured in two more recent story collections, Goldkorn Tales and Ice Fire Water: A Leib Goldkorn Cocktail. Kakutani deemed the former volume an "energetic, densely patterned" work, one which illuminates "revenge and forgiveness and the stunning tricks that life can play on its victims." In Ice Fire Water Epstein takes on the Holocaust, in what Houston Chronicle reviewer Harvey Grossinger called a "profuse, digressive and meticulously crafted" book which is "an uncompromising philosophical meditation that conjoins a universal human catastrophe with individual misfortune in order to comprehend the unthinkable and demoralizing horrors of history." By Ice Fire Water Goldkorn is in his nineties, but his libido seems to be unflagging. He reminisces about his attempted Holocaust-era romances with Olympic figure skater-turned-movie star Sonja Henie, swimmerturned-movie star Esther Williams, and Brazilian movie star Carmen Miranda, and about the operetta, A Jewish Girl in the Persian Court, that he was trying to get produced during those years. In the present day, Goldkorn is still striving to seduce women, including real-life New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani. "Beneath the masterful linguistic and critical performance," a reviewer commented in Publishers Weekly, "Epstein slyly plants speculations about survivors' accountability, the responsibility of memory and the relativity of taboo." Epstein has said that he plans to write yet another book about Goldkorn someday, one in which he estimates the character to be about one hundred and four.

Epstein's most controversial work has been his 1979 novel King of the Jews. In it he examines the role that some European Jews played in betraying their own people to the Nazis. The story focuses on the leader of the Judenrat, or governing council of elders, in the ghetto of a Polish industrial city. The Nazis ordered the establishment of Judenrat to control the population that they had forced into the ghettos; the councils' duties eventually included drawing up lists of passengers for the trains to the death camps. Forced to choose between their people and the Nazis, Judenrat leaders knew that if they did not supply the required quotas for the trains, the entire ghetto might be destroyed in one stroke. The ambiguity of this position led at least one Judenrat leader to take his own life. Until King of the Jews was published, "no work of fiction [had] opened up so fully the unbearable moral dilemma in which the Judenrat members found themselves, governing with a pistol at their heads, administering the processes of death, corrupted of course by their awful power, yet trying to preserve life when there was no real way to preserve it," Robert Alter wrote in the New York Times Book Review.

Epstein's protagonist in King of the Jews is based on Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski, the real-life elder of the ghetto in Lodz, Poland. Rumkowski remains notorious for having relished the power of his position. Like him, the fictional Isaiah Chaim Trumpelman eagerly volunteers for the position of council elder. Then he exploits his privileges, riding in a limousine or on a white stallion and even having his picture printed on the currency and stamps used in the ghetto. Many critics praised Epstein's characterization of Trumpelman for its depth. The man is depicted in larger-than-life style as someone who enjoys his role; yet Epstein also shows the elder's apparently real concern for orphans, his uncertainties, and the rationalizations that allow him to continue in his position. For example, when the grisly destination of the trains is made clear to him, he justifies his cooperation with the Nazis by saying that by sending ten Jews away, he is saving one hundred others. He even begins to think of himself as a savior "the King of the Jews."

Washington Post Book World contributor Michael Kernan noted the author's original approach to his material: "Writing in the manner of the old Jewish storytellers, Epstein dares to be funny. It is the mordant humor that has always been the visible rage of those who are forbidden to show their rage." Kernan concludes that King of the Jews "may prove the most successful of all" novels about the Holocaust "because it manages, incredibly, to place the experience in the context of written Jewish tradition." Other reviewers, however, thought that any attempt to find humor in the Holocaust was offensive. But Epstein told Atlantic Monthly interviewer Daniel Smith that his novel is an accurate depiction of life in the ghetto. "In King of the Jews there 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," an inhabitant of the Warsaw ghetto who buried cans full of records about daily life there which were discovered after the war.

Taking place in the nineteenth century, Epstein's fourth novel, Pinto and Sons, relates the quixotic tale of A-dolph Pinto, a Hungarian Jew who has immigrated to the United States to study at Harvard Medical School. After a botched experiment involving the newly discovered anesthetic ether, Pinto is expelled from Harvard. He travels to the American West, where his adventures include adopting and raising a Native American as his son, educating a tribe of Indians in mathematics and poetry, mining for gold, and attempting to discover a cure for rabies. Despite Pinto's good intentions, one catastrophe after another besets him. According to Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, Epstein is using "his hero's dilemmas to examine large historical and moral questions," namely, the inability of science and reason to solve basic human problems, the tendency of large man-made schemes to go awry, and the failed promised of the American dream as embodied in the frontier. Although Kakutani praises Epstein's "verbal exuberance" and his "gift for invention," she found Pinto and Sons "ultimately a disappointment," lacking the "moral resonance" of King of the Jews and sending the reader on an arbitrary "roller-coaster ride" where expectations are raised and then dashed. On the other hand, John Crowley of the New York Times wrote that that Pinto and Sons, despite being too long, "is a fantastic epic of the heroic age of applied science, a fit book to put on the shelf with the great tall tales of American expansion."

Epstein's fifth novel, Pandaemonium, returns to the era of King of the Jews, the late 1930s and early 1940s, and again deals, though in less-direct fashion, with the Holocaust. It is a complex and multi-charactered book, narrated in part by a fictionalized version of Jewish actor Peter Lorre and in part by a fictionalized version of Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons. The title of the book is drawn from seventeenth-century poet John Milton's Paradise Lost, in which Pandaemonium is the capital of Hell, where Satan's fallen angels gather. David Freeman, writing in the New York Times Book Review, described the novel as "an exuberant mixture of high art and low comedy . . . a big, funny and bold book that is a virtual catalog of literary, historical, theatrical and cinematic devices and references." The action of Pandaemonium opens in Salzberg, Austria, in 1938, where director Rudolph Von Beckmann is staging an outdoor production of the classic Greek drama Antigone. International star Magdalena Mezaray will play the title role. Magda, a fictional creation of Epstein's, is reminiscent of both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich and plays opposite male lead Peter Lorre. Lorre, who has been trapped in Hollywood in a series of mediocre films based on the exploits of the fictional Japanese detective Mr. Moto, sees this as a major career opportunity. Unfortunately, Hitler invades Austria before the production can be launched. Lorre, because he is Jewish, is soon displaced to a minor role. Magda is forced to become Hitler's consort. Von Beckman is eventually exposed as Jewish himself—the "Von" is assumed—and is sent to an internment camp. The action of the novel switches to Hollywood where Lorre, once again playing Mr. Moto for Granite Studios, futilely pursues his co-star and becomes increasingly dependent on cocaine. Fictionalized versions of real Hollywood personalties abound in the narrative and fictional events—Lorre's attempted suicide, the decapitation of Victor Granite, the kidnaping of Granite's daughter—occur in what Richard Bernstein in the New York Times Book Review refers to as "dizzying succession." "Von" Beckman turns up in Hollywood and, through a series of machinations, takes over production of Mr. Moto Wins His Spurs. Casting the newly liberated Magda opposite Lorre, Beckman transforms the movie into a kind of Antigone set in the Old West. Filming proceeds in the Nevada desert in the ghost town of Pandaemonium, where Beckman becomes a mini-Hitler himself, turning the town into an armed camp and ruling the production with a fascist hand. Epstein portrays the Hollywood power structure as fascist in nature, and is highly critical of the failure of Hollywood's Jewish community to respond to the Holocaust in any meaningful way.

Freeman said of Pandaemonium: "There is lunatic comedy here as well as moral seriousness. Epstein blends these disparate forces with considerable panache.... While I was there, in Pandaemonium, I didn't want to be anywhere else." Carolyn See, writing in the Washington Post, described Epstein as a writer who is "thoughtful, edgy, bitter, acute." She contends that in Pandaemonium, as in much of his other work, he is "concerned with illuminating and defining the Jewish experience in this century.... He's saying things that will not necessarily conform to the popular or politically correct view of life as we know it."

In 2003 Epstein published San Remo Drive: A Novel from Memory, which is based very closely on Epstein's own family life. The narrator is Richard Jacobi, who in the 1940s and 1950s is a boy of about Epstein's age. Jacobi is the son of a director/producer who bears a striking resemblance to Epstein's father, a famous screenwriter. The first four chapters of the book are set between 1948 and 1960; in them Jacobi's family suffers humiliation and the loss of their home on San Remo Drive when Jacobi's father is accused of being a Communist and, soon after, dies in a car crash. The remainder of the family learns to cope with life without him, and Jacobi and his brother, Barton, become adults. In this section, "Epstein conjures up Southern California in the '50s with an abundance of deftly observed and deeply evocative details," Jonathan Kirsch wrote in the Los Angeles Times. The second half of the book is set in the present; in it, Donna Seaman wrote in Booklist, Epstein "muses eloquenty on the profound impact childhood memories have on both art and life." In the New York Times, critic Elizabeth Frank praised the novel, writing, "Losing and finding, [Epstein] shows us love between fathers and sons as the most powerful and enduring in life, capable of transcending death, time, folly, and a Hollywood childhood. In doing so he has given us, along with F. Scott Fitzgerald's Last Tycoon, Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, and his own Pandaemonium, one of the four best Hollywood novels ever written."


Leslie Epstein contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:

I was born in 1938, in May, the same month Germans began sending Jews to Dachau. Germans? Jews? Dachau? I saw the light in Los Angeles, and for all I know the nurses in St. Vincent's wore the starched headgear of nuns. One of my earliest memories has to do with that sort of mix-up. I must have been four at the time, maybe five, and was sitting with my playmates around the edge of the Holmby Avenue pond, waiting for tadpoles to turn into frogs. The topic for the day seemed to be religion. At any rate, one of these contemporaries turned to me and said, "What are you?" Here was a stumper. All of the possible answers—a boy, a human, a first-grader—were common knowledge. While I stalled and stammered, one of the others took over:

"I know what I am! I'm a Catholic!"

That rang a bell. An historical tolling. Over a half-century before, and close to a century ago now, my grandfather had stood in line at Ellis Island, wondering how he could translate the family name—Shabilian, one way, Chablian if you're in the fancy mood—into acceptable English. Just in front an immigrant was declaring, Mine name it is Epstein! My grandfather, no dummy, piped up, "Epstein! That's my name, too!" Now, on the far side of the continent, his grandson provided the echo:

"Catholic! That's it! That's what I am!"

I must nonetheless have had my doubts, which I brought home that night. That's when I first heard the odd-sounding words, Jewish, Jew. "It's what you are," my mother informed me. "Tell your friends tomorrow."

The next afternoon, while the polliwogs battered their blunt heads against the stones of the pond, that is what I blithely proceeded to do. I do not think that, almost fifty years later, I exaggerate the whirlwind of mockery and scorn that erupted about me. I can hear the laughter, see the pointing fingers, still. What horrified my companions, and thrilled them, too, was not so much the news that I was a Jew—surely they knew no more about the meaning of the word than I—as the fact that I had dared to switch sides at all. "Religion changer!" That was the cry. "He changed his religion!" Vanderbilt: what if the gentleman, the greenhorn, ahead of my grandfather had said that magic name? Or Astor? Or Belmont even? What then?

From that day to this, the word Jew, especially in the mouth of a Gentile, has remained for me highly charged, with the ability to deliver something like an electric shock—rather the way the touch of a sacred totem might be dangerous to a Trobriand Islander, or the image of God forbidden, awesome, to the devout of my own tribe. The irony is, I doubt whether, through the first decade of my life, I heard the word mentioned within my family at all. In this my parents, the son and daughter of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, were not atypical. The second generation, emancipated, educated, was as often as not hellbent on sparing the third the kind of orthodox regime they had had to undergo themselves. Still, I imagine the situation of my brother and myself lies beyond the norm. For we were brought up less in the faith of our, than the founding, fathers: that is to say, as Deists, children of the Enlightenment, worshipers before the idol of FDR.

This minimifidianism sprang in part from the fact that our parents had settled in California while still in their twenties. Eastern shrubs in western climes. More decisive, I think, was the reason they'd made the move. Phil, my father, followed his identical twin brother, Julie, to Hollywood, where both began (and Julie yet continues) distinguished screenwriting careers. Now the figure of the Jew, on celluloid, had undergone any number of vicissitudes (my source on the subject is Patricia Erens's The Jew in American Cinema); but by the advent of the talkies, particularly with The Jazz Singer and Abie's Irish Rose, the puddle in the melting pot, the stuffing in the American dream had pretty much taken on, at least insofar as the Jews were concerned, permanent shape. In the latter film, for instance, Abie Levy and Rosemary Murphy have to undergo three different marriage ceremonies, Episcopal, Jewish, and Catholic. As Erens points out, the title that introduces World War I reads like this:

So in they went to that baptism of fire and
thunder—Catholics, Hebrews, Protestants alike . . .
Newsboys and college boys—aristocrats and immigrants—all
classes—all creeds—all Americans.

Moreover, one can easily determine, by the treatment of the descending generations in this film, from the bearded, accented and quite money-minded grandparents on, the ingredients for this Yankee stew: acculturation, assimilation, intermarriage; followed by blondness, blandness, and final effacement. These last three traits are meant always to apply to the third generation. Thus Abie's Irish Rose comes to a close with the birth of something like a genetic miracle—twins: Patrick, the lad; the girl, Rebecca. Once established, the movies rarely deviated from this recipe, which Erens calls "the tradition of casting Jewish actors as parents and Gentile-looking actors as their children." The point I wish to make is that my brother Ricky and I were firmly a part of that tradition.

Make no mistake: my father and uncle were proud of their Jewishness. Hank Greenberg and Sid Luckman were two figures followed with special attentiveness in the Holmby Hills. Indeed, Julie and Phil wrote the script not only for Casablanca (whose first word is "refugees"), but for what I believe is the only wartime film that dealt with domestic anti-Semitism. That, of course, is Mr. Skeffington, about which the Office of War Information complained, "This portrayal on the screen of prejudice against the representative of an American minority group is extremely ill-advised." Moreover, it should be pointed out that Jews of a certain stripe—the American Jewish Committee, for instance, or the Anti-Defamation League—have, from the days of Griffith's Intolerance, through Gentleman's Agreement and beyond, been no less zealous than government bureaucrats in trying to expunge the image of the Jew from the screen. Ostrich-ism, not ostracism.

In this atmosphere, is it surprising the real-life children of the film community should suffer the same fate as the Rebeccas and Patricks their parents had created? That my brother and I should, in a sense, be acted by, or inhabited by, Gentiles? Or that, since the word Jew had been banished from American popular culture from the beginning to the end of World War II ("If you bring out a Jew in film, you're in trouble": Louis B. Mayer), it might for the duration disappear from the households of those engaged on that particular front? Remember, the success of The Jazz Singer, whose theme was the repudiation of anything resembling ethnicity, turned Warner Brothers into a major studio: the Epstein twins had been writing for Jack ("See that you get a good clean-cut American type for Jacobs") Warner pretty much from the start of their careers. How could Julie and Phil, busily creating the American dream in a film like Yankee Doodle Dandy (don't look for their names in the titles, they gave the credit to a needy friend), not allow their own children to become part of that great national audience of upturned, white, anonymous faces? Would not we, no less than Paul Muni (né Weisenfreund) or Edward G. Robinson (Manny Goldenberg of yore) or John Garfield (another Julie—Garfinkle), become transformed? "People are gonna find out you're a Jew sooner or later," said Warner to Garfield, "but better later."

Meanwhile, the lives of the Deists went on. The great ceremony of the year was Christmas. I never lit a Chanukah candle in my life until, mumbling the words of a phonetic prayer, I held the match for my own daughter, my own twin boys. The Chanukah miracle is pretty small potatoes compared to the star in the heavens, the wise men and their gifts, the manger filled with awestruck animals, and finally the birth of the little halo-headed fellow before whom all fall to their knees. Rest assured that when all this was acted out for me, year after year, by the students of the public schools of California (I may well have donned a beard myself, and gripped what might have been a shepherd's crook or wise man's staff: either that, or I am once again adopting the guise—that's what I am!—of my friends), the J-word was never mentioned.

What most sticks in my mind, however, is the Christmas trees: giant firs, mighty spruces, whose stars—emblematic of the supernova over Bethlehem—grazed our eleven-foot ceilings. There were red balls and silver cataracts of tinsel and strings of winking lights—all strung by the black maid and butler the previous night. Mary and Arthur were there the next morning, too: she, to receive her woolen sweater; he, his briar pipe. Of course my brother and I were frantic with greed, whipped up by weeks of unintelligible hymns (myrrh, for instance, or roundyon from "Silent Night," or the Three Kings' orientare), by the mesmerizing lights and smell of the tree itself, and the sea of packages beneath it—and perhaps above all by the prospect of the rarest of all Epstein phenomena: the sight of our parents, in dressing gowns, with coffee cups, downstairs before the UCLA chimes struck noon.

Hold onto your hats: there was Easter. too. Not a celebration. No ham dinner. No parade. But there was no lack of symbols of rebirth and resurrection: the ones we dyed in pale pastels, the ones we hid under the cushions of the couch, or others, pure chocolate, that we gobbled down. The eggs I remember best were large enough to have been laid by dinosaurs, covered with frosted sugar, with a window at the smaller end. Through this we could see a sylvan scene: bunnies in the grass, squirrels in the trees, and birds suspended in a sky as perpetually blue as the one that arched over the city of the angels. Aside from Christmas and Easter, which created a special sort of pressure, there were ordinary Sundays, when it was my habit to lie late in bed, listening to the radio. More than once, twisting the dial between a boy's piping voice, "I'm Buster Brown! I live in a Shoe! Arf! Arf! That's my dog, Tyge; he lives in there, too!" and the genie's growl, "Hold on tight, little master!" I'd linger at a gospel station. At which point Mary would appear at my bedroom door. "That's right," she'd declare, with a broad smile. "You going to be blessed!" She was at least more subtle than the All-American rabbi in Abie's Irish Rose, whose words to a dying soldier the sharpeyed Ms. Erens quotes as follows:

Have no fear, my son. We travel many roads, but we all come at last to the Father.

Let's make a crucial distinction. Muni Weisenfreund turning into Paul Muni is one thing. Saul of Tarsus becoming Saint Paul is quite another. Everyone knows what happened after the local priest gave his Easter sermon. Those are not chocolate eggs the peasants of Europe have been hunting these hundreds of years. The Jews who were rounded up the month I was born would have gone free, just as the millions who were soon to be gassed in ovens or shot at the edge of ditches, would have been spared if Constantine the Great—religion changer!—had not seen a flaming cross in the sky: that is, if Christianity had remained, as I dearly wish it had, a minor sect and not become a major heresy. Nonetheless, those performances at Brentwood and Canyon Elementary had done their work. How appealing to a child those dumb donkeys! Those cows of papier-mâché! The mumbo jumbo of inexcelsisdeo! Few films have moved me as deeply as Pasolini's Gospel According to Saint Matthew, which I sat through twice in a row, weeping at the figure of Jesus, the babe in the grade-school manger, broken now on the cross.


Inconceivable that the whole of the Second World War could go by without leaving a trace. Nor did it. But the truth is that for us, in California, in sunshine, the conflict was more a matter of Japanese than Germans and Jews. I doubt very much whether I noticed when the Orientals in nursery school and kindergarten disappeared. Almost certainly I paid no heed when the same fate befell the old gardener who smoothed our flower beds with his bamboo rake. Odds are I was too distracted by the exciting talk of submarines off the coast, or bombs falling by parachute over Seattle.

There was never any question that the threat to us would come, as it already had at Pearl Harbor, from the Pacific. I can still remember the barrage balloons, like plump brown eggs, tied off the local beaches. My brother—aged what? Three? Four?—saw them from the end of Santa Monica Pier, and began to whimper. A trick of perspective, the sharp sea air, the taut lines gathered on buoys or barges, made it seem that these fat blimps, a mile offshore, were street-corner balloons. "Want one! Want one!" Ricky cried, stamping his feet, throwing himself onto the planks of the dock. For the loss of this toy he would not be consoled.

Throughout the house on Holmby, half-smoked cigarettes, my mother's Chesterfields, bobbed in the waters of the toilet bowls. Sitting ducks, they were, for my stream of urine, which would sooner or later burst the zig-zagging hulls, sending thousands of tiny brown crewmen over the side, to drown next to their floundering transports. Even after the war, when we moved to a yet larger house on San Remo Drive, my fantasies remained fixed upon the Far East. And on nautical warfare. We'd purchased a surplus life raft, yellow rubber on the sides, blue on the bottom, which was initially, thrillingly, inflated by yanking a lever on a tube of gas. In this vessel, on the smooth waters of our swimming pool, I floated for hours. Through the windless afternoon. Under a pitiless sun. The downed airman. With a metal mirror, also surplus, I signaled every passing plane whose silhouette did not resemble that of a Zero.

Naturally my imaginative life was shaped by the movies. The jump from the cartoon festivals I attended each Saturday at the Bruin theater to the war films showing everywhere else seemed a normal progression, just as the cartoons themselves were an innate part of the animism of a child's world. If a discarded pair of pants could become, in the dim light of one's bedroom, a slumbering crocodile, or a breeze in the curtain a masked intruder, then there was little to wonder at when barnyard animals, creatures of instinct much like ourselves, began to dress up, sing like Jimmy Cricket, or scheme for a piece of cheese. Also: murder each other, poleax their enemies, chop them to smithereens, or flatten them, under the wheel of a steamroller, as thin as a dime. All victims, it seemed, had nine lives. No death was unresurrected. It was this, I suppose, along with the white-hat, black-hat morality of the westerns, with their thousands of expendable Indians, that eased the transition to Winged Victory and Pride of the Marines. Now the enemy were mowed down like ducks, or blown, as Tom was by Jerry and Jerry by Tom, sky high. Yankee Doodle Mouse. 1943.

The early immersion in cartoons may help explain why, since I probably saw as many movies about the war in Europe as I did about the fighting in Asia, my attention remained firmly fixed upon the Pacific Theater. The Germans in movies were simply too adult, real smoothies like Conrad Veidt, witty, cunning, prone to understatement and reserve. Even the Prussian stereotypes, the smooth-shaved head, curled lip, and glinting monocle of a Preminger or von Stroheim, possessed a kind of refined sadism worlds removed from the clear-cut cruelty of a mouse handing a cat a sizzling bomb.

There was no problem of reticence in the movies that dealt with the war in the Pacific. Here the violence was full bore. More crucial, the enemy, like the Indians, were a different race—no, almost a different species, like the talking animals we already knew. Indeed, when these short, comical characters—yellowskinned, buck-toothed, bespectacled—did speak, they had something of the stammer of Porky, or Woody's cackle, or the juicy lisp of Daffy Duck. Thus the most forceful images of war remained, for me, those of death marches, jungle patrols, palm trees bent under withering fire, and kamikaze pilots with blank faces and free-flowing scarves.

What made such pleasure possible was the certainty that nothing I saw was real. I was, remember, a Hollywood child. Towering over the lot at Twentieth Century-Fox was a huge outdoor sky, painted so much like the real one, white clouds against a background of startling blue, that whenever we drove by I had to look twice to see which was which. The decisive moment came when I visited a sound lot, probably at Warners, where a pilot, one of our boys, was trapped inside his burning plane. A cross section of the fuselage rested on sawhorses; the actor's legs protruded beneath it, standing firm on the floor. Also on the floor, flat on their backs, were two civilians, one with a flame-throwing torch, the other with a plain wooden stick. Action! shouted the director. At once the pilot began to beat on the inside of his cockpit. The torch shot gobs of fire in front of the white linen background. And the fellow with the stick banged at the fuselage, so that, bucking, shaking, it seemed about to break apart. Finally the pilot managed to pry off his canopy and thrust his head into the wind-machine's gale. Cut!

The ambiguity of both that Magritte sky and desperate scene, indeed the tranquil unreality of the war itself: all that concluded one afternoon at HoImby Park. What I remember is my father running pellmell down the avenue, snatching me off the playground swing, and then dashing back up the hill toward our house. "The war is over!" he shouted. Either that, or, "The president is dead!" I have a scar, hardly visible now, under my lip, from the time I fell off that very swing. Possibly it's that catastrophe I recall—the same sense of urgency, the same excitement, the elation at flying along in my father's arms—and not Roosevelt's death, or the bomb-burst that brought the war to an end.

Not long afterwards we moved to the house with the swimming pool. Already my missing schoolmates—the plump, pleasant James Wada, was one—were starting to return. So did our gardener: or someone like him, arriving like a comical fireman in an old truck covered with hoses and ladders and tools. He tended lawns set with cork trees and fig vines and eucalyptus. The property was surrounded by lemon groves, which perfumed the air and filled it, two or three times a year, with canary-colored light. We weren't the first movie people in the neighborhood: Joseph Cotten's place was catercorner, on Montana, and a block or two over, toward Amalfi, were Linda Darnell, Lou Costello, and Virginia Bruce. Down the hill, our school bus made a loop into Mandeville Canyon to drop off the son of Robert Mitchum. Not the first film folk, then: but among the first Jews. For when the former owner of our house, Mary Astor, changed her name, it wasn't from Manny or Muni but the proper Lucille. The Gentile who disguised himself as Phil Green in Gentleman's Agreement was none other than our neighbor, Gregory Peck. The closest we came to a refugee was the sight of Thomas Mann, walking his dog along San Remo Drive. The Epsteins were the pioneers.

That meant my friends had such names as Warren and Sandy and Tim and John. We used to build forts together, ride our bikes through the polo fields, and use our Whammos to shoot blue jays and pepper the cars on Sunset Boulevard with the hard round pellets that grew on the stands of cypress above. We also camped out on each other's lawns. The smear of stars in the Milky Way is the prime text for Deists. All is order, beauty, design. The ticking of the master clock. Yet our gaze, once we closed the flap of our pup tents, was lower. In the new sport of masturbation one kept score by palpable results. A drop. A dollop. At one such tourney, the champion posed in our flashlight beams, his member bent at the angle of a fly rod fighting a trout. At precisely the midway point in twentieth-century America, the rest of us, the slow pokes, saw that something was amiss. Uncircumcised. Here was a rip, a rent, in the universal design. From this common sight I drew a skewed lesson. I may have been in the immediate majority, hygienic as any in the crowd. Yet I knew as gospel that the one who had been torn from the true course of nature was not he, the victor, our pubescent pal, but I.

Which is to say that, over time, we discovered differences. This was palmy Pacific Palisades: no crosses were burned in yards, no swastikas were scratched on lampposts. In our half-wilderness—polo ponies in the fields below, and, above, hills covered with yucca, prowled by bobcats—there were not even lamps. Why, quail sang in our hedges and stood on the lawns! The bus for Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School picked us up at a vacant lot on Sunset near Amalfi. Wheat seemed to be growing in it, and fiddleheads that tasted like licorice. One morning I arrived to find that the usual allegiances had shifted. My friends greeted me by throwing clods of dirt, sending me back to the wrong side of the boulevard. They arched their bomblets over the traffic. Their cry was "Kike! Go Home! Kike! Kike!"

Now this was not, in the words of the old transcendentalist, the shot heard round the world. Certainly the incident was a far cry from the kind of warfare the Epstein boys had engaged in, circa 1921, on the Lower East Side. There, you had to battle your way, against the Irish, against the Italians, just to get to the end of the block. On the other hand, while my schoolmates had never learned Emerson's pretty rhyme—

Nor knowest thou what argument Thy life to thy neighbor's creed has lent—

I knew what a kike was. Not, as in Salinger's story, something that goes up in the air. Thus I went home, as commanded, from which sanctuary Arthur drove me to school in the Buick.

Once a year farflung branches of the family gathered for the Passover Seder at my grandfather's house in Santa Monica—a time warp away, hyperspace distant, from Bialystok. "Say, der!" we called it, gazing with some dismay at these strange, gawky relations, mole-covered, all thumbs. The only cousins who counted were Jimmy and Lizzie, who, since they were Julie's children, and Julie and Phil—bald from their college days, two eggs in a carton, peas in a pod—were identical twins, were therefore my genetic half-brother and sister, Jim (later a starter at Stanford) and I made a point of throwing the football around the backyard and bowling over the pale kinfolk as if they had been candlepins. During the ceremony itself, which droned on forever, Jim and I would sit at the far end of the table, arm wrestling amidst the lit candles, the bowls of hot soup, the plates of (here is a title for a novel, or a memoir like this) Bitter Herbs. The empty chair, we were told, the untouched glass of wine, were not for yet more distant cousins, missing in Europe, unheard from since the start of the war, but for Elijah, who was fed by ravens and departed the earth in a chariot of fire.

That was the extent of my religious knowledge. Not once had I set foot in a synagogue, or been exposed to so much as a page of the Bible. I knew more about gospel music—You going to be blessed—and Christmas Hymns—Glo-or-i-a-a, or-or-i-a-a, or-or-i-a-a, oria!—than I did about the songs concerning grasshoppers and boils that my relatives chanted while thrusting their fingers into the sweet, red wine. Barmitzvahed? Perish the thought! Yet the idea must have occurred to someone, because, for perhaps three weeks in a row, I found myself in a Sunday school class of glum Jews whose dogma was so reformed in nature as to hardly differ from that of Franklin and Jefferson and the other founders. About this trial I remember little. Bad food, for one thing. And a distinctly dubious rabbi. My fellow sufferers seemed unlikely to be interested either in the fortunes of the Hollywood Stars—not the film colony, but our Triple-A franchise—or pup tent pleasures. Before I left, or, more likely, was asked to leave (the issue being my habit of roller-skating between the pews of the temple), I did pick up the fragment, the refrain, of one new song: Zoom-golly-golly-golly, so went the nonsense syllables, Zoom-golly-golly! Then I zoomed off myself, on my eight little wheels, back to the rhapsodies of secular life: "Sha-boom!" and "Gee (love that girl)," by the Four Crows.


"I got ice cream! Every flavor! Chocolate! Coffee! Vanilla! Strawberry! Lamb chop!" That speech, from a little Cub Scout play, was the first line I can remember writing. I suppose it was in the cards I would try my hand at the craft. Phil and Julie, unique among studio employees, did their writing at home. Once, Jack Warner cracked down about this, pointing out that their contract called for them to be at work on the lot by 9:00 a.m., just as bank presidents had to. "Then tell a bank president to finish the script," said one or the other of the twins, and drove off the premises. It wasn't long before Warner had another such fit, demanding that the boys, as they were habitually called, show up at the stipulated hour. They did, and at the end of the day sent over the typescript. The next morning Warner called them in and began to shout about how this was the worst scene he'd read in his life. "How is this possible?" asked the first twin. Concluded the second, "It was written at nine." So it was that I'd often lie upstairs, on the carpet, outside the closed library door. From the other side I'd hear a muffled voice—maybe Julie's: yattita-yattita-yattita, it would declaim, with rising inflection; then another voice, let's say Phil's, would respond, yattita-yattita-yattita! Then both would break out together, indistinguishably, in their crystal-shattering laugh. It seemed an attractive way to live one's life.

Still and all I don't think I wrote a story until my first year at University High. What I remember of it, more than three and a half decades later, is a public plaza, a milling crowd, a feeling of excitement, anticipation. There is, in the description of the square, the clothing, the mustachioed faces, something of a South American flavor. The snatches of dialogue, while not Spanish, must have been accented somehow. Buenos Aires, then. There was no real plot, only the waiting, the crush of numbers, the electric expectation. Finally, when the tension was as great as a fourteen-year-old could make it, that is, when all the upturned faces had turned in the direction of the tall brick building, when all eyes were focused upon the high balcony that jutted out over the square, the closed doors of the palace open. A small figure, unprepossessing, clean-shaven save for his mustache, and dressed in plain uniform, moves into the open. A sudden hush falls over the crowd. The man, not young, aged in fact sixty-three, steps forward. He leans over the balcony's wrought-iron rail. Then, suddenly, he stands upright and raises his right hand in the air. A great wave of sound, long suppressed, breaks from the crowd. It is half a sigh, half a shout. "Viva!" That is the cry. "Viva, Hitler!"

Where on earth, or at any rate in California, with its blue skies, from which the sun shone in winter at much the same angle it did in July, did this vision of evil incarnate come from? Had I, after all, noted something hidden, unspoken in those wartime films? Or heard a few whispered remarks around the Seder table? Or seen, in newspapers, a blurred early image of what would later become such familiar photos: bulldozers at work on piles of bodies; heaps of spectacles, sheared hair, shoes; wraithlike figures in striped pajamas; the lamp shades, the ovens, the showers, the ditches? The answer is no, and no, and no. Rather, an answer of yes would be superfluous here. The truth is I had always known—in the same way that one knows, from childhood on, the laws of gravitation. What goes up must come down. From childhood? I might have been born with an innate grasp of the fate of the Jews. What a person learns later, the facts of physics, the formulas about the mass of objects and the square of their distance, only confirms what he carries within like the weight of his bones. Hints, bushings, inflections, a glance: these pass from Jew to Jew, and from child to child, by a kind of psychic osmosis. So it was that history passed molecule by molecule through the membrane that held me apart from my fellows, and apart from a world long denied.

That's not the end of the story. Indeed, there was a second piece of fiction written for that same freshman class. The time, the present: that is, 1953. The place: the American Southwest. We see an old man, a prospector perhaps, a desert rat, dragging his way across the alkali flats. He pulls his burro behind him. The plot, hazily remembered, involves the way he had tricked everyone into thinking he had left the area, when in fact he had no intention of quitting the spot. It may be he was about to make his big strike. Or might have remained from cussedness alone. In any case the ending goes something like this. As the man and beast turn eastward, away from the setting sun, the sky lights up in a fireball, which grows larger and larger, lighting up the white sands, the tall cacti, the quartz hills, brighter than any day.

I mention this tale not because its subject, like that of its companion piece, was, for the frosh squad, so portentous, but because it indicates that in matters of war and peace my gaze was still out over the Pacific. How could it be anywhere else? The year before we had exploded a hydrogen bomb on the atoll of Eniwetok, and now the Russians had replied in kind. The weapon that had leveled Hiroshima, and killed a hundred thousand Japanese, served as a mere trigger, a kind of spark, for these giant explosions. The very air, it was thought, might catch fire. At University High we drilled for the moment the bomb would fall. There were three levels of strategy. The first, which assumed we had something like an hour's notice, involved a brisk march through the hallways and down the stairs to the fallout shelter in the boys' locker room. Not much different than a fire-drill, really, except that instead of milling outside we waited for the all-clear with our backs against the green metal doors. An imminent attack was indicated by a pattern of bells. The teacher lowered the blinds against flying glass while the students filed into the hall: silent, we were, in the dim light, the endless corridors. But the maneuver we practiced over and over occurred when there was to be no warning at all. A student might be in the middle of a recitation, Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow from Macbeth, when suddenly, from nowhere, the teacher would bark out the word, "Drop!" There would be a rustle, a rumble—falling books, falling bodies, a flutter of paper—as we hurled ourselves under our desks. We tucked our heads into our laps and clutched our knees, like the little crustaceans, the tightly coiled sow bugs, we unearthed from our lawns. The main thing, the great thing, was not to look out the windows. The light would blind us. It would fry the whites of our eyes.

Silent in the hallways, silent in the nation at large. Dumbstruck. Numb. This is how my brother and I entered the fifties. Ricky had already taken the measure of this world: he knew an illusion, a veil of Maya, when he saw one. Hence he drew inward, toward the realm of the spirit. That is to say, he drifted yet further toward the East—specifically toward the gardens and incense clouds and priests of Vedanta. I am certain that Ricky's sudden, but lifelong, interest in Karma, the way one's actions determine his destiny in past and future incarnations, the hope of rebirth on a higher plane, the dream of final release from the endless round of being—that all this was precipitated by the death of our father in 1952.

Even then we did not enter a synagogue. What rabbi could hope to match the vision of Nirvana preached by the followers of Vivekananda? Or compete with the scenes—Alec Guinness scrambling down the Eiffel Tower, clutching his ill-gotten gains—in the movie we attended instead of the funeral? A comedy, no less. There might be an echo, in our laughter that afternoon, of the afternoons at the Bruin. No death, to a child, is irrevocable. Cartoon critters pop up living and breathing. Why not our father, in the guise of his identical twin? Retake. Double exposure. Remember, though, that at the end of The Lavender Hill Mob Guinness is punished for his thievery and led off in chains. The doctrine of Karma is no less strict than the Hollywood Production Code. Our crime, those hours distracted, the glee, may yet lead to a lower form of existence—as Republicans, say, or reptiles—in the incarnation to come.

I cannot say whether Ricky was aware of the Holocaust, or, if he was, whether the knowledge had anything to do with his withdrawal. I do think that what little the country had discovered—in newsreels, mostly—about the destruction of the Jews of Europe, and the consequent erasure of those same mental traces, may have had no small part to play in the symptoms of paranoia, the deep, dumb shock, that characterized the decade. I do not mean to say the national hysteria had more to do with denial of the Holocaust than apprehension about the role of the Soviet Union in Europe and its testing of the same kinds of weapons we had already used. But those quick glimpses on the Movietone screen were not altogether ineradicable. That they left a mark could be determined from the kinds of comments people allowed themselves at the time. "How could these things happen in Germany?" was the most common remark. So clean. So enlightened. So civilized. Now we know better. It was the very modernity of German culture, its mastery of technology and the means of mass communication, that made it, with its glorification of violence, its infatuation with death, not our century's aberration, but its paradigm. Hence the chill that fell over the land. All the values of modern life had been given an ironic twist, a mocking echo. Belief in cleanliness? Here were bars of human soap. The quest for light? Here were lamp shades of human skin. What we feared in the fifties was not only communism, it was ourselves.

Throughout the nation, of course, the fear of fascism and the Yellow Peril had long since been replaced by that of the Red Menace. The hysteria was greatest in Hollywood, which, as Adolphe Menjou told the Committee, "is one of the main centers of Communism in America." If I had been older, and less sheltered, I might have found an example of resistance, one full of insouciance and dash, within my own family. When, in the late forties, Jack Warner testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee he produced a ludicrous list of subversives, largely consisting of those with whom he had contractual disputes. It included Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein, Roosevelt Democrats, on the grounds that they always seemed to be on the side of the underdog. Little wonder, then, that when Martin Dies took over the Committee he should send them a two-part questionnaire. The first question was, "Have you ever been a member of a subversive organization?" The second was, "What was that organization?" To part one the boys dutifully answered, "Yes." To part two they wrote, "Warner Brothers."

But I, no less than Ricky, or the country, joined the ranks of the silent, the stunned. After my quick start in the freshman year at high school, I withdrew. That is to say, I did not write any more stories, or playlets, or imaginative prose of any kind, until my undergraduate years in New Haven were drawing to a close. Why not? While the answer is complex, I think it fair to state that in the course of the decade I was, all unwittingly, willy-nilly, coming to a decision: when I was ready to write, it would be as a Jew; or, better, when I was a Jew, I would be ready to write. There was, however, a long way to go.

Among the newsreel pictures in my own mental gallery—wasn't there a crowing rooster in the old Pathé titles, much like the roaring lion in MGM's?—are shots of crowds dancing about piles of burning books and young, grinning soldiers cutting the beards of learned men. These images, together with what I soon read about the music the Nazis banned from their concert halls and the paintings they mocked in their exhibition of degenerate art, convinced me that the war against the Jews was in some measure a war against the nature of the Jewish mind. Absurd, I know, to claim that by exterminating the Jews the Germans were in fact attempting to eliminate Jewish art: but it is far from senseless to claim that the oppressors had come to identify the Jews with some quality of imagination, and in creating a world without one they were attempting to confirm that it was possible to live without the other.

In a sense the Third Reich had no choice. An aesthetic of Blood and Kitsch must, by its very nature, try to undo that embodied in Abraham and Isaac: that is, imaginative reenactment, the metaphorical power of words, the inseparable link between act and consequence, and the symbolic prohibition of human sacrifice. Specifically, what fascism repudiates in the ancient tale is the power of faith, the recognition of limits, and trust in the word of God. Enter the Jews. It was they who took the greatest imaginative leap of all, that of comprehending, out of nothingness, an empty whirlwind, the glare of a burning bush, the "I am that I am." In spite of much backsliding, in spite of having been warned by a jealous God (in a commandment they have rebelled against ever since) not to make likenesses, those people have continued that "repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation" that Coleridge defined as the essence of imagination. In an age when such faith was no longer tenable, when the supreme fiction—which is that we matter—became a rebuke to the countervailing belief—which was that everything is possible—then those finite minds, with their dream of the infinite, had to be eliminated.

These are the thoughts, or half-thoughts, I entertain now. The lesson I drew at the time, however, was little more than the proven adage: hard to be a Jew. And dangerous, as well. Once, in the mid-fifties, traveling back to California for summer vacation, I found myself on a New Orleans bus. A pleasant-looking lady leaned forward from the seat behind. "See that? See him there?" she asked, pointing out the window to where a motorcycle policeman sat on his machine, hidden behind a billboard. I nodded. The belle of the south lowered her voice. "The Jews put him there!" Now I knew how Gregory Peck felt, but—the Jew as Gentile, not the Gentile as Jew—in reverse. He had a swell speech for the occasion. I held my peace. A smile sufficed, and a nod.

Nonetheless, within me the ice was breaking. For one thing I had wheels. The friends with whom I cruised Hollywood Boulevard in the latest model of the Buick turned out—to my surprise: no, to my shock—to have names like Alan and Robbie and David and Dick. Similarly, the books I was reading, and the stories in the New Yorker, were written by fellows like Norman and Saul and Bernard and, soon enough, Philip. Not to mention J.D. I saw new kinds of movies: Night and Fog, The Diary of Anne Frank, and, best of all, Renoir's La Règle du Jeu.


So beneath the calm surface much was in turmoil. The symptom was this: no matter what situation I found myself in, I moved to the verge, the very edge. More to the point, having already been thrown out of the Jewish temple, I now proceeded to get myself banished from the citadels of Christendom. First was the Webb School, where I'd been sent, with several dozen other products of broken or unhappy homes, two years after my father's death. "With the cross of Jeee-suus," these were the words I mouthed in compulsory chapel, "going on beeeforrre!"

"What's this?" asked one of the preppies, as the turnips were plopped on his plate.

"The week's profit," sweetly said I.

Gone. Rusticated. Dismissed. Expelled. In the land of the goyim, however, what is done may, through contrition, repentance, and a good deal of breast-beating, be undone. The suspension lasted only three days.

Perhaps my goal was not so much to draw the wrath of the Christians as to bask in their forgiveness. Better a prodigal son than no son at all. A more likely explanation is that, at loose ends, in limbo, I was pushing myself toward becoming that marginal figure, the wisecracking Jew.

Then the scene shifted. Off I went to college in the cold, cloudy East. My instructions from Uncle Julie were as follows: when in New Haven buy an overcoat at Fenn-Feinstein; when in New York, eat the free rolls at Ratner's. There I was, a freshman again, at Second Avenue and Fifth. My coat, three sizes too large, was reddish-brown, with hairs sticking out of the lining. On my head, a snappy hat. Round my neck a Lux et Veritas tie. After studying the menu I raised a finger to the waiter. "I'm not electric," he said, hobbling by. A quarter of an hour later a second old man shuffled over.

"What's this ma-ma-li-ga?" I inquired.

Said he: "Not for you."

At about the same time I first met my maternal grandparents, who lived off the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. What drew me to them, through the last half of the fifties, and into the sixties too, was the way the aged couple clung together, whereas my own family had always gone their separate ways. A dead cigar in his lips, Herman would bicycle through the streets of the black ghetto, collecting rent. Our favorite restaurant—Clara, bedridden, was not to know—was a place that fried up forbidden crab cakes. Once I was at their shabby flat watching the evening news. "Nixon!" Herman said, grabbing his nose. "P! U!"

The waiter was right. Not for me. Not yet. It was still the era of the deaf and dumb. But things were soon to change. One afternoon at Yale, where the quota for those of the Mosaic persuasion was ten and 1/2 percent, I was standing on High Street when the mayor came out of Fenn-Feinstein and stepped into the barber shop next door. "What's the mayor doing?" asked my current straight man, as His Honor emerged from the doorway and moved toward the entrance to Barrie Shoes.

"Wednesday. 2:00 p.m.," I replied, not quite sotto voce. "Collection time."

We were, remember, still in the fifties. The next thing I knew I had been thrust up against the side of a car, had handed over my wallet, and been told to be at the dean's office the next morning at 10:00 a.m. By eleven, I was no longer a Son of Eli. Historians may yet come to note that this injustice, together with the response it provoked, represented the true birth pangs of the counterculture. I did not, as demanded, return to California. I spent a pleasant fortnight in nearby Hamden, strolling to the campus each evening to be interviewed by various senior societies: Manuscript, Elihu, Scroll & Key. Meanwhile, enough of a flap had developed—beginning with mimeographed notes on bulletin boards and ending with an interesting call from the New Haven Register—to bring about my reinstatement. Thus did the balance of power between the student and administrative bodies begin to tip. Some years later, after my years at the Drama School, the quota had been abandoned, Bobby Seale was camped on the New Haven Green, and the knock on the Elihu door was answered by—her blouse unbuttoned, a babe at her breast—a co-ed. Après moi, le déluge.

Oxford, or "Oggsford," as my coreligionist Meyer Wolfsheim is made in The Great Gatsby to call it, proved a tougher nut to crack. What do you do with people who, when asked to pass the salt, say, "Sorry!?" My boorish crowd used to hang out in the taverns and try, with comments on the weather and the bangers and the temperature of the beer, to drive the locals out. The low point (or pinnacle, depending) of this campaign occurred in the dining hall of my college, Merton (a place so stuck in the mud that its library, as old as Bologna's, turned down the gift of T. S. Eliot's manuscripts because he was not yet dead). Let me paint the scene. On the floor are a series of long tables, upon which sit pots of marmalade made from the very oranges Richard the Lionhearted sent back from Seville. Huddled on long benches are the undergraduates, shoveling down peas and gruel. On a platform, perpendicular to the masses, the Dons are drawn up at high table. The crystal, the flatware, shine. The chef, a Frenchman, has made a poulet en papillote. Even down in the pit, we can hear the puff of the little paper bags as they are punctured by the professors' tines. Time for the savory. The Dons tilt back their heads, dangling asparagus spears over their open mouths. But what's this? A stir on the floor? Where the Americans sit? In the Jewry? Indeed, at the moment, friend Fried, out of New Jersey, is about to be sconced.

"Sconce," says the OED. "At Oxford, a fine of a tankard of ale or the like, imposed by undergraduates on one of their number for some breach of customary rule when dining in hall."

The first infraction, 1650, was for "absence from prayers." Fried's folly, however, was making a serious remark, since the aforesaid rule forbade any conversation about one's studies, about politics, or anything that might be construed as an idea. That left the girls at Saint Hilda's and cricket. No sooner had Fried made his point about Marxist dialectics than gleeful cackle broke out among the Brits. Instantly a waiter appeared, sporting the usual bloodshot cheeks and bushy mustache. In his arms he held the foaming chalice that untold numbers of Merton men—including, surely, the animated Eliot—had raised to their lips. Fried, deep in his argument, paid no mind. The ruddy waiter—in his white apron he looked the kosher butcher—tapped him on the shoulder and held up, with a grin and a wink, the tankard. Fried whirled round.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" he asked, as if unaware that custom dictated he drink down the contents and order an equal portion for all those at table. "Shove it up your ass?"

Immense silence. Everything—the Dons with their buttery spears, the students balancing peas on their knives, the thunderstruck waiter—was as frozen, as still as the twelfth-century fly caught in the marmalade amber. Then, as if a howitzer had been fired, a sudden recoil. The students shrank away on every side, their hands to their mouths. "Oh!" they cried. "Oh, God!" Meanwhile Fried had turned back to his interlocutor, out of California, and together they resumed their argument about the merits of Marx and Freud, a sort of mental arm wrestling not much different from that at the end of the Seder table.

Clearly if Fried was not rusticated for this, I had my work cut out for me. To make a long story short I found myself on the telephone with the head of my department, Dame Helen Gardner. I fear that in so many words I told her that she ought to deposit her Anglo-Saxon riddles and Middle English charms (how to get honey from honeybees, for example, or cows out of bogs) where my compatriot had suggested placing the tankard of ale. Then, having resigned the major, I packed my bags, determined to leave the university at the start of the next term.

The two best things about an Oxford education are the length of the vacations and the relative proximity of the Mediterranean Sea. I'd already been to Greece, Spain, Italy, and Southern France. Now, on a brokendown freighter, the Athenai, I chugged right across the greasy, gray waters. Easy enough in the lurching bowels of this vessel to imagine that you were your own grandparents, storm-tossed, debating whether it was permitted to survive on a scrap of pork. Never mind that this journey lasted only two days, and that the welcoming landmark was not the Statue of Liberty but the golden dome of the Bahai temple, high above the harbor at Haifa.

What happened to me in Israel was at once common enough, and most bizarre. Instantaneously, virtually on the docks, the wall between myself and the world, that membrane, dissolved. Before my eyes hustled Jewish porters, policemen, soldiers and sharpies and sellers of pretzels. Osmosis cannot take place, nor can one live on the margin, or be expelled, when there are Jews in solution inside and out. The idea that I had grown up with—that the very word Jew was awesome, sacred, terrible, not to be thought of, never mentioned—became ludicrous on these shores swarming with the usual run of big shots and bums. What made Israel so appealing to many Jews like me (and so repugnant to the zealots of Crown Heights and the Mea Shearim) was the promise of the ordinary, the prospect of the mundane. Only in the Holy Land could the Jews escape being a holy people.

The impact of that part of my trip (the fact that I now kept track of Sandy Koufax on his way to mowing down 269 of the goyim) was altogether banal. But there were eerier forces at work, and they involved the history of the Germans and Jews. Of course I visited the memorial at Yad Vashem and the smaller museum, with its cases of torn scrolls and striped pajamas, on Mount Zion. At the center of everything, dominating each day, was the spectacle of a well-guarded German, Eichmann, pleading for his life before a court of his former victims. What was odd about these things was that I saw them in the company of someone who belonged to the last generation of Germans to feel, if not guilt, then more than a twinge of shame. This was Katrin, an architect from Munich, whom I had met aboard the Athenai. Everything you need to know about her background may be inferred from the fact that the name on her passport read Karen and had been changed by her parents to avoid what became, in the Third Reich, the most fashionable Aryan moniker.

Our relationship ("Don't tell Clara" was Herman's reaction upon hearing the news) was to last five years. When it ended I met—and was eventually to marry—a young woman who had also been a passenger on the Athenai, just one week before Katrin and I. That we had both suffered seasickness on that old Greek tub and had quite likely rubbed elbows in one museum or the other was but one of a series of near misses. Here was an image in a flawed mirror: an identical twin herself, and not the offspring of identical twins; a mother dead in childhood instead of a father; years on the beaches of Florida instead of California; Christmas celebrated, but without servants, carols, trees.


All this had to be sorted out in the future. At present fate had more tricks in store. My plans to leave Oxford were suddenly abandoned when Khrushchev put up the Berlin Wall. Waiting for me in England was a letter from my draft board stating that I would be inducted the moment I set foot on native soil. "Agriculture": that was the first degree-granting program listed in the University Bulletin, which I'd dashed the mile to the Bodleian to read in only a little over the landmark 3:59.4 that Roger Bannister, my fellow Oxonian, had set a few years before. Better boot camp, I decided. Better Berlin. The bulletin's second entry was "Anthropology." The wise guy set out to talk his way back into yet another institution of learning. Dip. Anthro. Oxon reads my laconic degree.

But it was the beast in man I studied, while pretending to solve the kinship system among the Nuer. Nor was it the wall in Berlin that occupied me, but the one the Berliners had erected in the streets of Warsaw. In brief, I spent my second year in Oxford reading everything I could about the Holocaust, including the story of the Elder of the Lodz Ghetto—one paragraph in Gerald Reitlinger's important book The Final Solution. I turned down that page in my mind. When I wasn't reading, I was writing. The subject, at last, was myself.

This story, my first as an adult, was called "The Bad Jew," and in it the title character—a cool Californian, aloof from the faith of his fathers, unmoved by the traces of the Holocaust he sees about him—is nursed through an illness by two aged survivors. While recovering he comes across a long letter from one child in a death camp to another. The key passage deals with the time the writer, Jacob, gave way to despair and attempted to smother himself beneath a pile of dirt in Bergen-Belsen. He is foiled, first, by the sensation of an earthworm moving up his leg, and then by the fear that the slightest movement on his part will crush that little creature. The right thing to do, he realizes, both for himself and the Jews, is simply to wait. At this point a shift occurs in the tone of the story. The burden of irony, of detachment, is shifted from my alter-ego to the survivor, the mother of the dead Jacob. The crisis takes place when, on a bus trip across the desert, she turns in disgust from a group of dark-skinned Sephardim and says to the hero, "Schvartzers! Look at them! Schvartzers!" The Angelino, while no angel, is no longer the bad Jew.

The story has never been published. While it was making the rounds I returned full circle, to the sunshine, to the Pacific, in order to study Theater Arts at UCLA. Even then I sensed I owed this much to that city and those climes: if I had grown up there as a Jewish child, that is, if there had been nothing to search for, no vacuum to fill, I would never have become a Jewish adult. Now Ricky and I lived in an empty flat on Fountain Avenue. He burned his incense in one room. I wrote in another. The year sped quickly by. I was jogging with a friend, my old pal Alan, when the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its worst: no way to fast talk my way out of that one. Koufax, I noted, was on his way to winning 25 games and striking out 306. Marilyn Monroe died, and so did Pope John.

Adolf Eichmann, of course, had already been hanged. In the course of that year the work that affected me most was Hannah Arendt's account of his trial. What so angered her critics—her claim that the Jewish leadership in Europe had been so compromised, so woeful, that the Jews themselves would have been better if they had had no self-government at all, and had merely run—seemed to me then, as it does now, so obvious as to be almost a truism. How on earth could things have been worse? The second half of her thesis, concerning the banality of the Obersturmbannfuehrer, and of evil in general, was not welcome news either. Clearly her readers, Jews and Gentiles, were more comfortable thinking of Eichmann and Himmler and Goebbels and the rest as either subhuman, or superhuman, monsters, beasts, psychopaths, and not as human beings much like themselves. What struck me most about her argument—that evil was a kind of thoughtlessness, a shallowness, an inability to realize what one is doing, a remoteness from reality, and, above all, a denial of one's connectedness to others—was how much radical wickedness resembled a defect, and perhaps a disease, of imagination.

That malady, whose symptom, a stunned silence, was as prevalent in the sixties as in the fifties, could only be healed by the writers and poets whose special responsibility was to show the world what those plain men had done. As Arendt maintained, only those who have the imagination to recognize what they share with the force of evil—in her words, "the shame of being human . . . the inescapable guilt of the human race"—can fight against it. And only that fight, it seemed to me, that fearlessness, could give meaning to the suffering of the Jewish people and, in that narrow sense, bring the millions of dead back to life.

Grandiose thoughts, granted. I cannot claim to have entertained them, or worked them through, at the time. But it was partly under Arendt's spell that I spent the academic year writing a play. It doesn't take a prophet to guess the subject. An Ivy Leaguer, living abroad, first initial L., falls in love with a German heroine, first initial K. In spite of some humor ("An American Jew is someone who thinks a shiksa is an electric razor"), this is a tortured piece of work, haunted ("I have the feeling, when I think of Europe, of what happened here, that I ought to be dead") by the destruction of the Jews. Somehow, it won a large prize, the Samuel Goldwyn Award, and persuaded Yale to let me in yet again—this time to the School of Drama.

The award ceremony provided a kind of Hollywood ending. Certainly it drew many loose ends together, completing a kind of cycle. Goldwyn (né Goldfish) was the producer of one of my father's last films. Uncle Julie was in the audience. So was his ten-yearold son, Philip, named for his identical twin. Jimmy and Liz, grown-up, were in the auditorium, too. Alfred Hitchcock, for the Christians, gave a speech and handed over the prize. Thus did the film industry, which had played such a large role in making my childhood Judenrein, now bestow upon me—and for a play so Jewish it would make Abie's Irish Rose look like a crowd-pleaser at Oberammergau—its imprimatur.

Still, there were no happy endings. Katrin was in Munich, recovering from a recurrence of tuberculosis she had contracted during the war. I was already preparing for my trip to the East. Little did I know I would not return—at least not for more than a few days at a time—to the West Coast again. "Include me out": that is not just a wacky Goldwynism. It is a description, canny to the point of genius, of the lives that Jews lived on the screen, and beneath the white clouds and peacock blue of the painted sky.


But I was back for good beneath the changeable vault of the East. I spent two years at the Drama School, feigning sore throats so I would not have to act in my own plays. None of these works had a Jewish theme or Jewish characters. It may or may not be a coincidence that this time I was not expelled. Immediately after completing my residency I started work at Queens College, where I was to remain for the next thirteen years. Apart from my marriage and the birth of my three children, two significant things happened during those years: I came to love the city that the Reverend Jackson quite accurately called Hymietown; and I began to write fiction. This work, on its own, it seemed, willy-nilly, veered back to what appears to be my natural subject. The first story dealt with an article from the newspapers—a Yeshiva playground under attack by a group of blacks; the second was about an exiled Romanian who had spent his entire life attempting to prove that Mozart was a Jew. Because both were immediately accepted for publication I wrote others. It was momentum, then, that drew me from the theater, though I have never stopped staging plays, sometimes of full chapter length, inside of most of what I've written since.

I finished my first novel under the thatched roof of a house in Holland, where I was teaching on a Fulbright. I can easily remember lifting, or half-lifting, its last words from what I recalled of Little Dorrit: ". . . they passed up and out of the courtyard itself, into the sky, like dandelions blown over the domes and towers and hot busy people of Moscow." Then I walked into our little Dutch garden and looked up at the real sky, which in the late afternoon was half pink, half blue, as if stitched like a flag down the middle. A writer isn't likely to forget such a moment—or the one, some months later, back in my windowless Queens College cubicle, when my agent called to say that an editor had accepted P. D. Kimerakov for publication. Here's a rarity: I've had the same agent, Lois Wallace, and the same editor, Joe Kanon, through thick and thin ever since.

For my next project I gathered five of my published stories into a book, The Steinway Quintet Plus Four.The only class I ever had in writing fiction occurred when Joe, his two assistants, and I sat late one night with the manuscript all about us, scissoring out paragraphs, crossing off passages, pasting, rearranging, and smearing with pizza sauce some eighty thousand words I had always assumed to be sacred. Even then I was beginning to think about my second novel. For some reason I found myself going back to the battered Reitlinger volume (I have it, in pieces, still), which fell open to that same page 63 I had turned down in the winter of 1961-62: "At Lodz, however, the Germans chose a president in October, 1939, who suited their purposes for nearly five years. Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski . . ."

For the next year I spent every day at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Fifth Avenue and 86th Street, reading everything I could about this man. The library itself was on the second floor of what must have once been a mansion, and the requested books came up the dumb waiter inside the librarian's flowered purse. The oddest, and in retrospect most frightening, aspect of this year was the way my heart, instead of skipping a beat, or stopping, at these accounts of misery and woe, pumped merrily along, essentially undeflected. I think I must have sensed soon after I began my research that if I were to get through such material at all, to say nothing of being able to think about it and shape it, I would have to draw a psychic shutter between myself and these tales of the fate of the Jews. Thus I sat through long winter months, wrapped in my overcoat, calmly, callously reading.

Finally, one day in spring, I looked up from my text. Sunlight shone from the west, lighting up the window box. The top of the trees in the park had already started to bud. I'm going to be punished for this, I thought. I'm going to have nightmares. Then I dropped my eyes to the book. In it a German officer was putting his ear to the side of a bus in which Jews were being gassed. "Just like in a synagogue," he says, of the wailing from within; and that, word for word, is how I recorded the line in my notebook and the novel to come.

There were no nightmares. I started work on my book, not looking back. "In the winter of 1918-1919, on a day when the wind was blowing, I. C. Trumpleman arrived in our town." Wait a minute! Who's talking here? Why so jaunty? So homey? So familiar? I stopped.

More solemnly I started again. Before I was done with page 1, I'd described another window box, "through which you can see clouds and birds and the lemon-colored lozenge of the Polish sun." Worse still! That "you," as if the speaker felt he could just come up and drop his hand on your shoulder; that sun like a cough drop. What nerve, what cockiness! Again I halted. High seriousness I wanted—not high spirits. Yet no matter which way I turned it, the material kept coming out in a tone so lighthearted and glad-to-be-alive—so much that of the reader's friend—that I had no choice but to surrender to it.

What, then, of the punishment I'd as much as promised myself? The nightmares that never came? One has only to wait. True, it did seem for a time there might be no price to pay at all. King of the Jews was more successful than I had dared hope: nominated for awards, translated into many foreign languages, still in print after more than a decade, it has come to look like a classic book on the Holocaust. The trouble started when, just before publication, I moved to Boston and began work on my next novel. It proved almost impossible to write. Everywhere I looked in this new manuscript I saw pain and death: amputations, autopsies, disinterments, acts of torture; whole armies crossed rivers, like Caesar's men, on the backs of their fallen comrades. I realized that all the horror I had kept from the pages of my Holocaust novel was now returning, as if in a reflex of revenge. Thousands of missing corpses were pressing round.

Clearly enough, I'd been made the butt of a joke, of an ironical trick I'd played on myself. It was as if I'd made a pact with my emotions not to feel, not to respond, but had forgotten about what might happen when the pact came to an end. This was the working out of one of the great archetypes of the culture, the bargain whose deepest meaning is never grasped by the bargainer: the man who asks for immortality but neglects to request perpetual youth; the figure who puts on a mask he can't remove; or a version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," in which the very powers sought for—to animate, to imagine, to control—become the source, through sheer repetition, of one's own demise.

Over the course of the next decade I continued my work on Pinto and Sons. Twice I came to a complete halt and wrote, rather quickly, two other books of fiction—Regina, a novel, that deals most explicitly with my interest in drama; and Goldkorn Tales, three novellas about Leib Goldkorn, the character of whom I am most fond. Always and ever I returned to the recalcitrant story of Adolph Pinto, and his adventures in the new world. Why was his tale so difficult to tell, and so filled with horrors? Part of the explanation is simplicity itself: the terms of the writing game had changed. The attention given to King of the Jews would now be refocused on me. My next large book had to be as good as the one that had come before. I was self-conscious, self-critical, in a way I had not yet experienced. But this is a happy hurdle, really, and one that any real writer (that is, an author who has more than one good book in him, just as a genius is someone with two great ideas) is only too eager to jump.

Nor do I think the emotional censorship I practiced at YIVO could by itself account for this large-scale return of what I believe is called the repressed. When, at what other time, had I purposefully turned my back on my feelings? Recall, if you will, the day after my father's death, when Ricky and I laughed our heads off at The Lavender Hill Mob. What kind of bargain, I wonder, was I making in my thirteen-year-old mind when I said I did not wish to attend the funeral? First, probably, that my refusal would not be allowed; the far-off beginnings of the ironical joke may lie here—in the way halfhearted words are taken at full value. Or perhaps this: if I ignored the proof of my father's death, he might return to us (remember those cartoon characters with nine lives?) in the guise of his identical twin. What were those gold statuettes that Alec Guinness had in his suitcase? Miniature Eiffel Towers? Or Oscars? My father's Academy Award?

"No Dancing on the Graves of the Dead!" That is the slogan of the young resistance fighters in King of the Jews. They're warning the residents of the ghetto not to go to a play (Macbeth, as it happens) while their people suffer. Was this meant to be a flag waved in my own direction? For going to the movies on the day my father was buried? For writing a novel about these millions of victims, in some sense ancestors too? For my laughter on both occasions? For the voice of that narrator, our jaunty friend? One would have to be a resistance fighter in a different, Freudian sense to untangle these knotty questions, though no less heroic for that.

It didn't take heroism, only grit and stubbornness, to complete Pinto and Sons—well over eight hundred pages in the first draft. Time, the one true critic, will determine whether the ten-year effort was misplaced. I can say this: the book only began to move, the logjam to break, when I overcame my written-in-stone objections to allowing any Jewish element into its pages. By the time I was done, my immigrant, a long-nosed and high-minded Austro-Hungarian, had taken over title and text. In a sense the writing of this book was a recapitulation of the journey I had taken from a Judenrein childhood to the discovery of the Jew.

And next? Well, as yet another Hebraic gentleman says at the end of Regina, "Lots of things, in my opinion, have got to be a secret." Not that one isn't allowed a couple of clues. Because the new book will be set in Hollywood, and in the forties, we again come round full circle. Who knows? Maybe Julie will be in it, and Phil. Certainly there will be some of the characters, the emigrés and refugees, I glimpsed as a youth. Not to mention the writers and actors and agents who hung round our pool. The war will be in the background. Up front, the city, and the busy workings of its chief industry. And everywhere, of course, the flat, unchanging sunlight, the blue of the real and brush-stroked sky. During the task—and for how many years?—I won't budge from my study at Brookline, Massachusetts. The wings of the imagination are, for me, the best way home.


Leslie Epstein contributed the following update to CA in 2003:

The last words in the previous installment of what is clearly turning out to be an ongoing saga were, "The wings of the imagination are, for me, the best way home." What strikes me forcefully now, a decade and more later, is how fiercely those wings have been beating since. For home—that is to say, the literal house of my childhood on San Remo Drive and those who lived in it, my father and mother and brother, together with our various black servants; the swimming pool in the back yard, the lemon groves and the smell of the lemons, the cork trees, the little music alcove with its Capehart and 78-rpm records, the white pillars looming in front; and the more figurative home of the most western state and the faith of the fathers—is something that I now know has always been lurking in my work and which, at the turn of the millennium, asserted in undeniable ways its claim.

But if California and Judaism—or at any rate Jews—and the movie business together constituted a flame that this writerly moth circled and re-circled, it is a fact that the insect always veered away, apparently in fear of singeing those aforementioned wings. In other words, the memories of childhood were so efficiently repressed that they could only be expressed in sublimated form. Thus, throughout my career the past in general became the genre of history; the sorrows of childhood were transformed preposterously into the sufferings of the Jews; and my gaze was deflected from youth and adolescence toward aged figures who, however peppy, had one foot and maybe a calf and a thigh in the grave.

I have written earlier how I turned my back on Judaism, forsook family, and fled California; and how, for that very reason, Jews and Jewishness on the one hand and family, films, and California on the other became the entwined themes of my work (though the use of that word, entwined, suggests yet another theme, twins). I've often wondered: if I had not rejected religion and home, would either have played a role in my fiction? Indeed, would I have become a writer at all? I'll risk repetition: if I had had a religious life as a child, would I have attempted to fill what is cornily called a spiritual vacuum as an adult; if I'd remained on the shores of the Pacific, how could I constantly imagine making my return?

The first overt signs of the movement back appeared in the novel Pinto and Sons. There, a Jewish emigrant, thinking to return to his home in middle Europe to fight in the revolutionary wars of 1848, ends up in gold rush California by mistake. And if the role of the Jews had to be played by painted Indians, there was nonetheless a clear enough reference to a suffering people that was about to be exterminated by a technologically superior but morally dimmed society. If I am present anywhere, I suspect it is not so much in the figure of Adolph Pinto but in his "sons," the Modoc boys, ever precocious, who love learning and speak exclusively in the words and intonations of Robert Burns.In my next book, Pandaemonium, the approach to my own boyhood is more explicit still. Again, the movement is from Europe to California, but the journey is from necessity and not in error. Further, it is not only to my native state that all the characters come, but the Los Angeles of my infancy and boyhood and youth, the city of the film industry into which I had been born. What's this? These two bald writers? Cracking jokes, pulling pranks, and writing a new film for the narrator, Peter Lorre? Yep, it's the Epstein twins, Phil and Julie, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the drama.

(Parenthetically, have readers noticed how often my work contains plays within novels? Antigone, of course, in Pandaemonium; Macbeth in King of the Jews; Othello in Goldkorn Tales; The Seagull in Regina? Not to mention Aïda and The Life of Louis Pasteur, and all the other movies in Ice Fire Water. Is this because I was trained as a playwright, actually wrote plays, and so pay this tribute after having somehow taken a wrong turn into fiction? Or is it an indirect struggle with, and tribute to, my father and uncle, who of course wrote plays and screenplays all their lives?)

I didn't dawdle, as is my wont, over Pandaemonium, because I wanted Uncle Julie, already well into his eighties, to see himself in the book, which contains, in addition to every practical joke he and his brother pulled on Jack Warner, his practical wisdom as well. For example, when I told him how, at the banquet Warner gave for the premiere of Midsummer Night's Dream, he arranged for embossed medallions of himself and Shakespeare to be printed on the cover of the brochure, Julie said, "And neither one of them ever heard of the other." That made it into the novel, and so did this: I told Julie that I was going to recreate the famous moment at which he and Phil solved the riddle of the ending of Casablanca by turning to each other and simultaneously shouting, "Round up the usual suspects!" I mentioned to my uncle that while in reality that occurred in a Buick stopped at the red light at Beverly Glen and Sunset, I was going to move it to the Warners' sound stage and have Jack Warner present. "Fine," he answered, "but have Jack stand there and say, 'Huh? Round them up for what?'"

So there for all the world to see were two vital members of my family. Where, if anywhere, was I? Crouched, hidden in, and divided between, the two narrators, I suppose. Was Peter Lorre, with his wild ambitions for high art and his entrapment in an endless series of Mister Moto films, a commentary on my own academic and literary pretensions, while at bottom all I really wanted to do was write like my dad for the movies? I wouldn't go so far as to claim that the character of Louella Parsons was a Jungian anima, or shadow, of her creator; but her bottomless vulgarity, vindictiveness, and perpetual sniping is just what one would expect of someone locked out of a community that she believed she deserved to inherit as her birthright.

The idea of a divided author, split between aspects of his characters, is perhaps clearer in my next book, Ice Fire Water: A Leib Goldkorn Cocktail. Yet again we have the sea change from Europe to Los Angeles; this time the traveler is our old friend, Leib Goldkorn, who because of a dyslexic French telegraphic boy (the telegram was actually meant for Korngold, the famous composer), ends up in Hollywood, writing music for Darryl Zanuck. Here I am to be found both in the youthful Leib, dizzyingly entangled in the world of glamorous Hollywood, filled with stars and starlets; and in the aged, solitary Jew, toilet bound, "Hustler," and much else, in hand, a figure I fear I am rapidly coming to resemble.

With my ninth book, San Remo Drive: A Novel from Memory, the process—half denial, half sublimation—came to an end. Perhaps I was forced to stop writing about aged, suffering Jews because all too clearly I was becoming just such a figure myself. All I know for certain is that in the midst of writing the usual kind of historical novel—subject: the Jews in Rome before and during the Second World War—I found myself pulling down the first volume of my Random House Proust and reading the famous words that described how Marcel used to fall asleep. It seemed a crazy thing to do. After all, I'd read through the unadorned Scott Moncrieff translation forty years earlier, lying in the guest room of my Uncle Julie's house with a thermometer in my mouth for what I suspect was a Proustian, couvadian fever. Then I read Kilmartin's touch-up in the early nineties. Why should Dobbin once more plod these same pages? But plod I did, two pages a night, every night. No, in truth there has been no plodding. I enjoyed, and enjoy still, the simultaneous commitment of five minutes and five years. Each night, like a box of Godivas on my pillow, rests the clothbound book. It is not a bad idea, I have come to understand, to keep a bedtime appointment with a noble mind; it has the power to purify even the most wasted day.

One morning, about a month after I had started reading A la recherche du temps perdu, I sat down at my desk and, after the usual Talmudic fiddling with the sports pages, started to write. What emerged on the legal pad had nothing to do with the novel that was already under way. In that work my narrator had arrived in Rome just in time to witness the triumphal parade of Mussolini's army and the spectacle of the vanquished Ethiopians being led through that same Arch of Titus that had been erected to celebrate the defeat of the Jews. What I saw before me now was a teenager in a Buick convertible driving along the Pacific Coast Highway with a woman trying to protect her blowing hair and another adolescent who had his arms around the family spaniel to make sure it would not jump from the car. A double take. Why, that fellow driving resembled me! Wasn't that my mother looking into her compact mirror? The curly blond hair, the blue, glittering eyes, and, yes, the gap in his teeth when he smiled: that was my brother. We were driving to Malibu to meet the man who wanted to marry my mother.

I put down my Pelikan pen. Where had these people come from? I had written the paragraph in a kind of trance. But I was not so dazed as not to understand why I had somnambulistically pulled down the volume of Proust. I needed Marcel's courage and Marcel's example. If he could write about how he would wait in literal breathlessness for his mother's good night kiss, perhaps I could depict my own past with its equivocal caress.

I finished the first story, and then a second and started a third. I began to see that a novel might be under way. By then I understood that there was another reason I had sought out Proust, one inextricably bound up with the passage of time. When Marcel returns to Parisian society after a hiatus of many years, he encounters his old friends at the Princesse de Guermantes. He hardly recognizes them. Trembling, they are, and pale, the women bent as if their dresses had already become entangled in their tombstones, their heads drooping in a trajectory, the momentum of whose parabolas nothing will be able to check. Even the tremor on their lips seems to him a last prayer. I, too, had recently returned to the neighborhood in which I'd grown up and saw once again the generation of actors and actresses, the writers and agents, who had so dazzled me once with their wit, beauty, and bright spirits. There they were, huddled at the edges of the Palisades, as at the end of a continent, over which a wind was blowing them—like pumice stone dolls, as Marcel puts it—unrelenting down.

As Marcel puts it. That is the purpose of literature: to organize our experience, to prefigure it, and to provide both the recognition of, and consolation for, the fact that we ourselves are growing old. I sensed that Proust, or my memory of Proust buried in that final volume, had helped me deal with the shock of what awaited me each time I returned to the West.


But I could not know that a greater shock lay just ahead. Midway through that third story, while working on a scene in which the boy who resembles me wraps a towel about the woman who resembles my mother after she has emerged shivering from an all too familiar pool, the telephone rang. My actual mother had had a heart attack, a bad one, out of the blue. I arrived at her bedside the next day. She was up, she was chipper, she wanted her glasses to read the New Yorker; but a second attack two days later tore a hole in that already damaged muscle, and the blood swished back and forth for a few hours, until she, I think to her own surprise, slipped away. Three days later Uncle Julie died too. We held one funeral. We held the other. Again the survivors appeared before me, though this time I did not give a thought to the glamorous lives they had led: these were just ladies from my mother's bridge group, and other ladies and gentlemen from the Plato Society, for which to the end my mother had been writing a paper on the Ottoman Turks.

I returned to my home in the East. Old newspapers, old letters, students and students' stories. Also waiting was the yellow pad, similar to the one I am writing on now, and the abandoned sentence: my mother's double, in her white bathing cap, her bathing costume, blue-lipped from the cold. My Pelikan was waiting too. Proust could no longer help me. I was alone in the room. Somewhere Matisse has written that the great thing about art is that no matter what happens to the painter, whatever the interruptions or vicissitudes of his life, the daffodil or the patch of sunlight is still waiting utterly unchanged, so that he can make it complete. I picked up my pen. I finished the scene. I finished the story. I do not believe anyone can find that moment—I cannot find it myself—at which I was forced to suspend the sentence. All is seamless. With those words, and with these, I console myself.

I'd like to add, if I may, another thought or two. This, from Freud, is the epigraph at the start of San Remo Drive:

E.T.A. Hoffman used to explain the wealth of imaginative figures that offered themselves to him for his stories by the quickly changing pictures and impressions he had received during a journey of of some weeks in a post-chaise, while still a babe at his mother's breast.

It seems crazy to assert that the whole of a writer's imaginative life can spring from such a source. And yet, think of the scene: the horse, the shine of sweat on its rump, the smell of that sweat, the crack of the whip, the sound of the hooves over cobblestones, the light winking through the leaves of the trees, the faces of those standing at the side of the road, and, above all, the mother's arms, the mother's breast—suddenly, what Hoffman asserted is not so unlikely after all.

I have a similar memory, my first. This is how the figure who (no splitting, no disguises) represents me in the novel describes it to those attending his mother's funeral:

"My first memory is of a rowboat," I told the mourners. And so it was. I was I think little more than one year old. My mother and I were in a lake. I think it was at MacArthur Park. I think it was a Sunday. My evidence for that was the colored funny papers that the man in the boat held before his lips, like a guide using a megaphone. Was that Norman? Fooling around to divert us? Or was it some stranger? Were there even multi-colored comics in 1939? In all likelihood Lotte was pregnant; thus it is not beyond all possibility that I could feel my brother moving as she pressed me against her. Nothing was certain, save for the green grass, the blue sky, the white clouds, and the undeniable fact that my mother was holding me in her arms; and what I told all her friends was that for the whole course of my life she had held me, and was doing so still. (San Remo Drive: A Novel from Memory)

Why was that distant experience available to me as a fiction writer now in his sixties? I think because, lodged in my adolescent memory, there was a second rowboat, the one in which—or so I was convinced—that man who wanted to marry my mother rowed me well off the Malibu shore in order to kill me. San Remo Drive is filled with such doubling, echoing memories. The day after my mother's funeral I went back to that house I mentioned earlier, the one with the lemon groves, 1341 San Remo Drive. The elderly woman who let me in turned out to be the young bride we had sold it to a half century before. Inside, I thought I recognized our dinner table. I thought I recognized our credenza. "Yes," said Miss Havisham, "and there is your mother's baby grand. We haven't changed a thing." She led me through the living room to the bar, and the little room where we used to play music. She threw open a pair of cabinet doors: there was our antique Capehart and the 78-rpm records, the show tunes and Rachmaninoff concertos that I used to sneak downstairs and conduct at night. Here again were two experiences: an old one and a new one, a doubled memory, the house that was eternally mine and the one that this stranger was only renting.

Think of Uncle Julie's funeral; it, too, resembled that party at the Princesse des Guermantes'. The gathered figures from my childhood were at one and the same time young and old, present and past. The key thing in making any memory available to imagination, and perhaps to art, is not only that it is doubled (and heavy, often, with an Oedipal atmosphere), but that it makes us aware of the passage of time and hence of our own mortality. All of my life seemed now open to me, as it had not been before, and as it may not be again. Here is another quote from Freud; it too could be the epigraph not only for San Remo Drive but for all my work:

What a child has experience and not understood by the age of two he may never again remember, except in his dreams.

My books have been just such dreams.



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 27, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.


Atlantic Monthly, October 20, 1999, Daniel Smith, interview with Epstein.

Best Sellers, August, 1975.

Booklist, October 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Ice Fire Water: A Leib Goldkorn Cocktail, p. 417; May 15, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of San Remo Drive: A Novel from Memory, p. 1644.

Boston Globe, October 26, 1990, p. A19.

Boston Herald, May 13, 1997, James Verniere, review of Pandaemonium, p. 33.

Boston Magazine, November, 1982, Lee Grove, interview with Epstein, pp. 107-114; May, 1985, Lee Grove, review of Goldkorn Tales, pp. 98-99.

Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), August 17, 1997, Mark Shechner, review of Pandaemonium, p. F8.

Chicago Tribune, November 18, 1990, section 14, p. 6.

Commentary, May, 1979.

Harper's Magazine, August, 1985, "Atrocity and Imagination," pp. 13-16.

Houston Chronicle (Houston, TX), February 13, 2000, Harvey Grossinger, review of Ice Fire Water, p. 14.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2003, review of San Remo Drive, pp. 554-555.

Library Journal, October 15, 1982, review of Regina, p. 2002; April 15, 1985, Herman Elstein, review of Goldkorn Tales, p. 85; October 1, 1990, Elise Chase, review of Pinto and Sons, p. 115; April 15, 1997, David Dodd, review of Pandaemonium, p. 117; September 15, 1999, Marc A. Kloszewski, review of Ice Fire Water, p. 114; May 1, 2003, Jim Dwyer, review of San Remo Drive, pp. 154-155.

Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1983, Elizabeth Wheeler, review of Regina, p. 30; December 14, 1997, Jeremy Larner, review of Pandaemonium, p. 4; June 15, 2003, Jonathan Kirsch, review of San Remo Drive, p. R2.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 17, 1983; April 23, 1985; November 22, 1990, p. E14; June 8, 1997, p. 4.

New Republic, March 10, 1979.

Newsweek, January 29, 1979.

New York Times, February 7, 1979; April 3, 1985, Michiko Kakutani, review of Goldkorn Tales, p. 19; November 16, 1990, Michiko Kakutani, review of Pinto and Sons, p. B4; June 2, 1997, Richard Bernstein, review of Pandaemonium, p. B7; June 12, 2003, Dinitia Smith, review of San Remo Drive, p. E1; July 20, 2003, Elizabeth Frank, "You'll Never Have to Leave," p. 10.

New York Times Book Review, August 10, 1975; December 12, 1976; February 4, 1979; May 5, 1979; February 28, 1980, review of King of the Jews, p. 47; October 10, 1982; November 21, 1982, George Stade, review of Regina, p. 12; December 5, 1982, review of Regina, p. 46; January 1, 1984, review of Regina, p. 32; April 7, 1985, David Evanier, review of Goldkorn Tales, p. 8; May 11, 1986, review of King of the Jews, p. 42; December 7, 1986, Patricia T. O'Connor, review of King of the Jews, p. 84; November 4, 1990, John Crowley, review of Pinto and Sons, and Judith Shulevitz, interview with Epstein, p. 3; June 22, 1997, David Freeman, review of Pandaemonium, p. 6; October 31, 1999, D. T. Max, review of Ice Fire Water, p. 15.

Present Tense, summer, 1985, Gerald Jonas, review of Goldkorn Tales, pp. 62-63.

Publishers Weekly, January 8, 1979; March 1, 1985, review of Goldkorn Tales, p. 69; September 7, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of Pinto and Sons, p. 75; March 24, 1997, review of Pandaemonium, pp. 59-50; August 23, 1999, review of Ice Fire Water, p. 47.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, MO), August 17, 1997, Dale Singer, review of Pandaemonium, p. 5C.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 2, 1990, p. 5.

Saturday Review, March 31, 1979.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 4, 1997, review of Pandaemonium, p. C2.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 25, 1979.

Village Voice, February 19, 1979; January 18, 1983.

Washington Post, March 11, 1979; January 1, 1983; March 20, 1985; November 25, 1990, p. 9; May 30, 1997, p. B2.

Yale Review, October, 1979.


Boston University Web site,http://www.bu.edu/ (June 28, 2003).

Boston Phoenix Online,http://www.bostonphoenix.com/ (June 28, 2003), Michael Bronski, review of San Remo Drive.

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Epstein, Leslie 1938-

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