Siegel, Lee 1945-
SIEGEL, Lee 1945-
PERSONAL: Born July 22, 1945, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Lee E. and Noreen (Roth) Siegel; children: Dmitri, Sebastian. Education: University of California—Berkeley, B.A., 1967; Columbia University, M.F.A., 1969; Oxford University, D.Phil., 1975.
ADDRESSES: Office—Department of Religion, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2500 Campus Rd., Honolulu, HI 96822.
CAREER: Educator, India scholar, magician, writer. Western Washington University, Bellingham, instructor in English, 1969–72; University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, professor of English and religion, 1976–, chair of graduate program. Guest lecturer at Oriental Institute, Oxford University, 1985, and College de France, 1985.
MEMBER: International Brotherhood of Magicians, Society of American Magicians, Society of Indian Magicians.
AWARDS, HONORS: Senior fellow of American Institute of Indian Studies and Smithsonian Institution, 1979, 1983, and 1987; grants from Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, 1981, and American Council of Learned Societies and Social Science Research Council, 1982, 1985, and 1987; presidential award for excellence in teaching from the University of Hawaii, 1986.
Vivisections (drawings and poems), Goliards Press (Bellingham, WA), 1973.
(With Jagdish Sharma) Dreams in the Sramanic Tradition: Two Psychoanalytical Studies in Jinist and Buddhist Dream Legends, Firma KLM (Calcutta, India), 1980.
Fires of Love, Waters of Peace: Passion and Renunciation in Indian Culture, University of Hawaii Press (Honolulu, HI), 1983.
Laughing Matters: Satire and Humor in India, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1987.
Sweet Nothings (translation of the Amarusataka), Ravi Dayal Publishing, 1988.
Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1991.
City of Dreadful Night: A Tale of Horror and the Macabre in India (novel), University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1995.
Love in a Dead Language: A Romance (novel), University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1999.
Love and Other Games of Chance: A Novelty (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
Who Wrote the Book of Love? (novel), University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2003.
Author and director of Mask and Mystery, a television series produced at Media Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1978. Contributor to Encyclopedia of Religion; contributor of articles and reviews to history, religion, and philosophy journals and to newspapers.
SIDELIGHTS: Lee Siegel, a professor of religion and a stage magician, once told CA: "India is a metaphor. Writing is what interests me—writing and magic. They are the same. And scholarship is a literary genre; I am exploring the poetics of scholarship."
In Siegel's Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India, "a study of magic becomes a way of understanding, and experiencing, contemporary India," a reviewer for Wilson Quarterly explained. Net of Magic, which contains some sections of fiction, is primarily a humorous, colorful travelogue and entertaining account of magic in India, although it is not devoid of academic scholarship. "This is not, then, a straight, narrowly academic monograph on Indian magical traditions from the classical period to today…. [Siegel] combines the methods of academic scholarship (history, ethnology, study of texts) with the descriptiveness of travel writing, interspersed with fiction. It sounds unwieldy, but, for the most part, Siegel makes the trick work," stated J. Robert Phillips in the Journal of American Folklore. Similarly, in the American Ethnologist, Peter Van Der Verr remarked on the humorous qualities of the book and wrote that "it is highly entertaining and exceedingly well-written but hardly a contribution to knowledge about Indian magic in its relation to history and society. And such a contribution may not be the intention of the author."
Net of Magic's value as entertainment led some critics to question its value as analysis. Phillips concluded, "The book is a tour de force, but a more detailed and sober account of Indian magical traditions remains to be written." Scientific American contributor Philip Morrison perceived Siegel's mix of "learned academic" and tourist somewhat differently: "Convincingly authentic where that counts, [Siegel's] book is also a funny parody and a wry satire aimed as much at gaudy deceptive Las Vegas as at pretentious Calcutta…. Few books tell so much so deeply about magic or about the grounds of belief itself." The Wilson Quar-terly reviewer remarked on the book's descriptive qualities, saying that "earlier belletrists aimed only to think well and write charmingly. Net of Magic represents a newer academic genre, in which the scholar leaves his desk and does original field research, and then returns not with a monograph but with literature."
Siegel's City of Dreadful Night: A Tale of Horror and the Macabre in India is about "a delightfully complicated" Indian storyteller named Brahm Kathuwala who "reveals himself through a series of interlocking tales," according to Vikram Chandra in the New York Times Book Review. Although it is a fictional work, reviewers remarked that it is not quite a traditional novel. A critic writing in the Atlantic Monthly commented that it is "a fictionalized assemblage of what the author has gathered of Indian hair-raisers" and surmised that the reader will both "yawn" and "shudder." The book was described as "curiously organized fiction" by a Kirkus Reviews contributor, who wrote that "riveting material is given redundant and indifferent treatment…. The reader is kept at a confused distance by the 'novel's' apparently arbitrary structure, profusion of epigraphs, [and] surfeit of sickeningly visceral detail." City of Dreadful Night was praised by Chandra, who noted that Siegel's novel "dances gracefully between scholarship and autobiography and fiction, from story to story-within-story…. The narrative is structurally complicated, gruesome, satisfyingly full of harmonies with other tales and illustrative of a variety of Indian responses to life's inexplicable catastrophes."
The plot of Siegel's erotic comedy, Love in a Dead Language: A Romance, is a play on Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and a novel "masquerading as a translation of and commentary on the Kama Sutra," noted Tom Le Clair in the New York Times Book Review. Leopold Roth is a California professor, married to another academic, and the father of twin girls, one of whom was murdered at the age of twelve. Leopold is obsessed with Indian culture, and particularly with Lalita Gupta, an American-born Indian girl who cares little for her heritage. He plans his seduction of her with the help of his own translation of the Kama Sutra and convinces her to accompany him to India. Upon returning home, Leopold is faced with Lalita's angry parents, his wife, Sophia, who is the chair of women's studies and the sexual harassment committee, and the university that suspends him. His agony is ended however, when he is hit with a Sanskrit-English dictionary from behind and dies. Siegel, as a character in the story, is Leopold's friend, and he gives the task of completing the translation to Anang Saighal, an Indian-Jewish grad student. This character contributes to Roth's work, but also works on his own confessional journal, in which he writes of his lack of love.
LeClair wrote that "Siegel's inventions, new and old, are too lovingly done to be mere parody. They are revels in languages—in specialist or popular discourses—presumed dead. While the novel's historical texts, both actual and imagined, give pleasure, they also tell an incisive history of Orientalism, Europeans' construction of Indian sexuality, the elision of exotic and erotic from which Roth and Lalita suffer. And since Roth finds anti-Semitism in the Orient, Siegel shows racism travels both east and west." Comparing the novel to the Indian rope trick, LeClair wrote that "if Love in a Dead Language isn't a freestanding rope, it's a major laughing matter and deserves space on the short, high shelf of literary wonders."
A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that "while this ribald romp, satire on Westerners' spiritual hunger, and sendup of academia may prove too rarefied and serpentine for some tastes, others will find it a sophisticated treat." James Crossley wrote in the Review of Contemporary Fiction that Siegel has "larded his satire with learning and packed it with serious issues; his great accomplishment is that the result is a surprisingly easy entertainment."
A Publishers Weekly critic called Love and Other Games of Chance: A Novelty a "wildly comic novel." The story is organized like a game of Snakes and Ladders, but which Siegel calls Directions, with one hundred chapters of four pages each, numbered like the squares of the board game. Each square represents an adventure in the life of Isaac Schlossberg, who is named by Siegel's mother as his natural father. Schlossberg spends his childhood traveling with his carnie parents, in sideshows, vaudeville, early film, and Wild West shows with performers like Buffalo Bill Cody. As an adult, he travels to Calcutta and forms his own group, Professor Solomon Serpentarius's Oriental Oddities and Indian Incredibilities. They tour England, Paris, and the United States, where he stars in a Hollywood film. The story documents his various love affairs with the daughter of a snake charmer, an acrobat, and others. The tallest of the tall tales is that he beat Hillary to the top of Mount Everest, and that when Hillary reached the summit, he found a pickax with Schlossberg's initials carved in the handle, and threw it from the mountain.
Washington Post Book World reviewer Steven Moore commented that Siegel "is formidably erudite, though never overbearingly so, and possesses an extravagant vocabulary. Isaac has a sideshow barker's love of alliteration and magniloquence, so you'll need your biggest dictionary close at hand…. But if you don't mind being challenged, you'll be rewarded with a wise, witty, and entertaining novel illustrating the myriad, complicated ways that love, art, and religion resemble each other."
Molly Abramowitz noted in the Library Journal that "low comedy, physical buffoonery, and rough wit abound…. This work will perfectly suit those with a taste for the literary fable." Booklist's Donna Seaman called Siegel "a conjurer and a tease, a connoisseur of language…. This three-ring circus of a novel is as smart as it is ebullient."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Ethnologist, August, 1993, Peter Van Der Verr, review of Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India, p. 638.
Atlantic Monthly, November, 1995, review of City of Dreadful Night: A Tale of Horror and the Macabre in India, p. 146.
Book, March, 2003, Tom LeClair, review of Love and Other Games of Chance: A Novelty, p. 81.
Booklist, June 15, 1991, review of Net of Magic, p. 1910; May 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Love in a Dead Language: A Romance, p. 1671; February 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Love and Other Games of Chance, p. 974.
Journal of American Folklore, October-December, 1989, pp. 502-503; fall, 1992, pp. 513-515.
Journal of Asian Studies, February, 1990, pp. 190-191.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1995, review of City of Dreadful Night, pp. 1305-1306; November 15, 2002, review of Love and Other Games of Chance, p. 1652.
Library Journal, June 15, 1991, review of Net of Magic, p. 91; September 1, 1995, review of City of Dreadful Night, p. 210; January, 2003, Molly Abramowitz, review of Love and Other Games of Chance, p. 159.
New York Times Book Review, October 29, 1995, Vikram Chandra, review of City of Dreadful Night, p. 44; May 23, 1999, Tom LeClair, review of Love in a Dead Language, p. 14; February 16, 2003, Eric Weinberger, review of Love and Other Games of Chance, p. 26.
Publishers Weekly, June 14, 1991, review of Net of Magic, p. 55; September 11, 1995, review of City of Dreadful Night, p. 80; February 22, 1999, review of Love in a Dead Language, p. 60; January 27, 2003, review of Love and Other Games of Chance, p. 235.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2000, James Crossley, review of Love in a Dead Language, p. 186.
Scientific American, November, 1991, Philip Morrison, review of Net of Magic, pp. 142-143.
Times Literary Supplement, January 3, 1992, p. 23.
Washington Post Book World, February 2, 2003, Steven Moore, review of Love and Other Games of Chance, p. 5.
Wilson Quarterly, winter, 1995, review of Net of Magic, pp. 116-117.