Halter, Marek 1936–
Halter, Marek 1936–
PERSONAL: Born January 27, 1936, in Warsaw, Poland; immigrated to France, 1950; son of Salomon (a printer) and Perl (a poet) Halter; married; wife's name Clara. Education: Attended L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Home—Paris, France. Office—c/o Author Mail, Crown Publicity, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Writer, artist, human rights activist, and editor. Worked as a mime for two years in Paris, France; paintings shown in exhibitions in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tel Aviv, Israel, and New York City. International Committee for a Negotiated Peace Agreement in the Near East, founder, 1967. Involved for many years in informal peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel; served as president of the European Foundation for Science, Art, and Culture.
AWARDS, HONORS: Prix Aujourd'hui, 1976, for Le fou et les rois; Prix du Livre Inter, for The Book of Abraham.
Le fou et les rois (autobiography), A. Michel (Paris, France), c. 1976, published as The Jester and the Kings: A Political Autobiography, translated by Lowell Bair, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 1989.
La vie incertaine de Marco Mahler (title means "The Uncertain Life of Marco Mahler"), A. Michel (Paris, France), c. 1979.
Le memoire d'Abraham (novel), R. Laffont (Paris, France), c. 1983, published as The Book of Abraham, translated by Lowell Bair, Holt (New York, NY), 1986.
The Children of Abraham (novel), translated by Lowell Bair, Arcade (New York, NY), 1990.
Un homme, un cri (title means "One Man, One Cry"), R. Laffont (Paris, France), 1991.
La memoire inquiete: il y a cinquante ans, le ghetto de Varsovie, R. Laffont (Paris, France), 1993.
Le messi, R. Laffont (Paris, France), 1996.
Stories of Deliverance: Speaking with Men and Women Who Rescued Jews from the Holocaust, Open Court (Chicago, IL), 1998.
Les mysteres de Jerusalem: Roman, R. Laffont (Paris, France), 1999.
Le judaisme raconte a mes filleuls, R. Laffont (Paris, France), 1999.
Le vent des Khazars: Roman, R. Laffont (Paris, France), 2001.
"CANAAN TRILOGY"; FICTION
Sarah: A Novel, Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 2004.
Zipporah, Wife of Moses: A Novel, Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 2005.
Lilah: A Novel, Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 2006.
Edgar Morin, Mais, Nouvelles Editions Oswald, c. 1978.
Founding editor of Elements, a magazine about the possibilities of peace in the Middle East.
SIDELIGHTS: Artist and human rights activist Marek Halter had already made a name for himself as a painter, showing his work in several different countries around the world, when he began his writing career with the autobiography The Jester and the Kings: A Political Autobiography, which was published in his adopted home country of France in the late 1970s. But this work was not translated and published in the United States until after his novel, The Book of Abraham, made its debut in 1986 and was lavishly praised by reviewers. The Book of Abraham traces a single Jewish family over two millennia and has been often compared to Alex Haley's classic of black literature, Roots, and to the works of James Michener. Halter has penned other novels as well, including a 1990 sequel to The Book of Abraham titled The Children of Abraham.
Halter was born in 1936 in Warsaw, Poland. He spent his early childhood in the Jewish ghetto there, but he and his family—a long line of printers and publishers—escaped the Holocaust as they were helped to flee before the Nazis occupied the area. Halter grew up in the Soviet Union and Poland, entertaining his friends by telling stories for them, until he and his family were allowed to immigrate to France in 1950. It took him a while to learn French, but as revealed in a Publishers Weekly interview with Shirley Ann Grau, "he got a job in pantomime and spent two years with make-up on his face and not much need to use words." But already he had decided to become an artist, and he enrolled in the L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Halter was successful as an artist, showing his paintings in Tel Aviv, Israel, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and New York City, but beginning in the late 1960s he began devoting much of his time to working on the possibilities of peace in the Middle East. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, he and his wife began discussing peace with other French intellectuals, and, as Grau noted, "they knocked on doors in Cairo [Egypt] as well as Jerusalem [Israel], bringing Arabs and Jews together to talk about their differences." Halter's experiences in this effort are recorded in detail in his book, The Jester and the Kings, and reviewer Roger Friedland in the Los Angeles Times Book Review explained that "Halter's account makes sad reading, for it reveals just how much the situation has changed" since the late 1960s and 1970s "and how the premises that might have brought peace even a decade ago no longer seem to have the capacity to persuade."
The Book of Abraham, Halter's most noteworthy work of fiction, was published in France during the early 1980s. He had worked on it for several years, researching his own family history, which he managed to trace back past the advent of Johann Gutenberg's printing press in the fifteenth century. He based the latter part of the novel on this family history, and for the earlier portion of the book—which begins in Jerusalem, A.D. 70—Halter used historical facts to construct a plausible past for the family it chronicles. Thus, The Book of Abraham traces a history of Jewish persecution, migration, and survival that spans two millennia. Some critics felt that the huge scope of the book made it impossible for Halter to develop his characters fully; Lothar Kahn in World Literature Today, for example, lamented that "no sooner do we become intrigued with any one of the many Abrahams, Itzhaks, and Josephs who populate the novel than he dies and we rush on to another locale, another historical episode, another birth, and another death." Kahn admitted, however, that in spite of this, The Book of Abraham is "surprisingly good." Fellow historical novelist Irving Stone, reviewing The Book of Abraham in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, had much more glowing praise for Halter, declaring that "the novel is so entirely credible and moving that the reader comes out at the end of the 700-page epoch feeling that he may have encountered a classic in the tradition of [Leo] Tolstoy's War and Peace or Halidor Laxness' Independent People." Frederic Morton in the New York Times Book Review called the work "spectacular," and noted that "the author's ethical instincts help unify the book, drawing together parts that in the hands of another writer would be disparate…. Only an imagination as learned, as indomitable as Mr. Halter's could have even conceived The Book of Abraham."
In 1990, Halter published a sequel to The Book of Abraham titled The Children of Abraham. Again based on the lineage of his own family, this book has a much smaller scope, beginning in the 1960s and ending in the 1980s. Reviewers categorize the novel as a thriller, because it concerns the murder of one of Halter's cousins near Jerusalem in 1961. Halter's relatives from all over the world feature as characters, "showing up in the most exciting places," according to Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Michael Harris.
Sarah: A Novel is the first novel of Halter's Canaan Trilogy, a series of books retelling and embellishing the stories of several biblical women from Old Testament times, with a feminist perspective. Sarah, born Sarai, is the daughter of a wealthy Sumerian in Ur. She is also a teenager facing the unhappy prospect of an arranged marriage. She has reached menarche and is physically ready to bear children, but she is frightened of her menstruation and reluctant to become a wife and mother. Repulsed by her potential husband, she flees her father's house. During her ordeal, she meets Abram, a kind and handsome boy from a tribe camped in the wilderness nearby. The two almost immediately fall in love, but the next day, Sarai is discovered by soldiers who force her to return home. Desperate to forestall her gloomy future, she consumes an herbal preparation that stops her menstrual period but also renders her unable to conceive children. Now undesirable as a wife, she becomes a priestess of Ishtar, where she is again aided by the kindly Abram. This time, the two are free to marry, and do. Their happiness is short-lived, however, as Abram is called by God to seek out a new land in the now-familiar story from the Bible. Halter follows Sarah to old age through this biblical story, recounting events such as her encounter with the infamous Pharaoh, her conflict with Hagar (who eventually gives Abram a child), and her bitter old age.
The book is "lushly detailed and fast moving," commented Pat Dole in Kliatt, although Dole found it "fine for romance fans, but not for Bible scholars." Halter's "complex portrait of the biblical matriarch gives this solid if predictable novel a dash of freshness," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "Readers will find the story compelling, especially Sarai's decision to run away from an arranged marriage," commented Maureen L. Hartman in the School Library Journal.
Zipporah, Wife of Moses: A Novel also loosely follows the framework of the related story from the Bible, but offers Halter's own interpretation and characterization of the wife of one of the Bible's most important personages. Zipporah is the adopted daughter of Jethro, a high priest in Midian. Although Zipporah is intelligent, wise, and beautiful, Jethro cannot find her a husband because she is a Cushite—she is black. She dreams of an Egyptian prince who waits for her in the sea, and this prince seems to have taken human form when the handsome Moses arrives and helps repel an attack against her people. A rivalry for Moses ensues between Zipporah and her sister. Moses's destiny is sealed when he chooses Zipporah for his wife. She is with him during the most important events of his life as described in the Bible, but the majority of these events happen outside the main narrative. However, with Zipporah lending him courage and strength, Moses eventually develops the steely will that allows him to face Pharaoh and demand the release of his people from slavery.
"Halter's Zipporah is a woman of passion, loyalty, and faith, and readers will cheer her on," commented Library Journal reviewer Jane Baird. Halter builds Zipporah's character by "re-creating her most intimate thoughts but also by providing vivid details of her daily life in the desert," noted Ilene Cooper in Booklist.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Halter, Marek, The Jester and the Kings: A Political Autobiography, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1989.
Booklist, May 15, 2005, Ilene Cooper, review of Zipporah, Wife of Moses: A Novel, p. 1648.
Kliatt, November, 2004, Pat Dole, review of Sarah: A Novel, p. 50.
Library Journal, June 15, 2005, Jane Baird, review of Zipporah, Wife of Moses, p. 58.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 13, 1986, Irving Stone, review of The Book of Abraham, p. 1; September 3, 1989, Roger Friedland, review of The Jester and the Kings, p. 2; December 23, 1990, Michael Harris, review of The Children of Abraham, p. 6.
New York Times, April 3, 1986, Richard F. Shepard, review of The Book of Abraham, p. C25; December 27, 1990, Richard Bernstain, "A French Writer Meets His 'Secret Sharer,'" p. C13.
New York Times Book Review, April 6, 1986, Frederic Morton, review of The Book of Abraham, p. 9.
Publishers Weekly, April 4, 1986, Shirley Ann Grau, interview with Marek Halter, p. 46; April 5, 2004, review of Sarah, p. 35; June 6, 2005, review of Zipporah, Wife of Moses, p. 41.
School Library Journal, October, 2004, Maureen L. Hartman, review of Sarah, p. 198.
Time, May 5, 1986, Stefan Kanfer, review of The Book of Abraham, p. 74.
World Literature Today, spring, 1984, Lothar Kahn, review of The Book of Abraham, p. 233.
Random House Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (March 25, 2006), biography of Marek Halter.
The Toby Press Web site, http://www.tobypress.com/ (March 25, 2006), biography of Marek Halter.