Wilson, Jonathan 1950–
Wilson, Jonathan 1950–
Born 1950, in London, England; immigrated to the United States, c. 1981, became naturalized citizen; married Sharon Kaitz (a painter and teacher), 1981; children: Adam, Gabriel. Education: Attended Essex University, 1968; attended Oxford University, 1974; Hebrew University, Ph.D., 1977. Religion: Jewish. Hobbies and other interests: Soccer.
Writer; educator. Tufts University, 1981—, became Fletcher Professor of Rhetoric and Debate, professor of English, and chair of English department.
On Bellow's Planet: Readings from the Dark Side (criticism), Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Rutherford, NJ), 1985.
Herzog: The Limits of Ideas (criticism), Twayne (Boston, MA), 1990.
Schoom (short stories), Lime Tree, 1993, Penguin (New York, NY), 1995.
The Hiding Room (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1995.
A Palestine Affair (novel), Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2003.
An Ambulance Is On the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Marc Chagall, Nextbook-Schocken (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals, including the New Yorker.
Jonathan Wilson is a fiction writer and literary critic who has received recognition in both capacities. As a book writer, he is probably best known to the general reading public for his fiction in which he explores the nature of identity. "I'm Jewish. I'm an American citizen. I lived in Israel for four years. The issues of blurring identity fascinate me, and that's why my imagination takes me to places where all those things are blurred and challenged," he told Boston Globe reporter David Mehegan.
The youngest of three brothers, Wilson grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in the Willesden section of London. At Oxford University he was one of the first students to study American literature, which was then considered colonial literature. Wilson first came to the United States in 1976 to research American novelist Saul Bellow, the subject of his literary research. In New York City, he discovered a new and welcome freedom. "I always felt that Jewish life in England was very constrained, that there was a great deal of self-effacement," he told Mehegan. "I had a sense of living in an anti-Semitic environment in London. It wasn't like Poland in the 1930s, but I had a number of unpleasant childhood run-ins. But I absolutely fell in love with New York. I had never seen Jewish people have so much fun before, and I loved it. It was the first time I didn't feel like a self-effacing minority." After teaching and finishing his doctorate at Hebrew University, where he met his Boston-born wife, Sharon Kaitz, Wilson returned to the United States and made his permanent residence there.
In 1993 he published Schoom, a collection of short stories centering on the theme of the wandering—or dislocated—Jew. "Mr. Wilson's people tend to stray where they don't belong," wrote David Gates in the New York Times Book Review. "To some of these characters, the very idea of belonging anywhere seems alien." Wilson's characters are inevitably victims, individuals trapped in situations or circumstances that they cannot control. In the title tale, for example, a patient is intimidated into stealing by his psychoanalyst. In "Migrants" an American family immigrates to Israel and befriends a family of Russian immigrants who eventually rob them. Gates declared that the stories in Schoom are "slyly sinister Rube Goldberg machines in which choice and circumstance chug away either to mousetrap the characters or to spit them out into the void."
Wilson's 1995 offering, the novel The Hiding Room, provides another variation on the theme of the wandering Jew. In it a beleaguered film editor travels to Jerusalem to bury his mother and uncover evidence concerning his father, a British intelligence officer during World War II. The protagonist discovers that his mother, a Jewish refugee, had been betrayed by his father. The Hiding Room unfolds as two narratives, one devoted to the hero's search, the other concerning the actual relations between his parents decades earlier. "History has its nodes where two just causes intersect and each becomes the other's unjust cause," wrote Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times. He described The Hiding Room as "a love story shattered at one such intersection." A Publishers Weekly contributor also praised The Hiding Room, stating that the author "has a convincing grasp of both the physical and emotional terrain he describes."
Wilson's 2003 novel, A Palestine Affair, is based on the true murder of Yaakov De Haan, a Dutch Orthodox Jew. Set in Jerusalem in 1924, when the Zionist movement was achieving momentum, the work combines mystery with thriller with political novel. Describing the work as a "period piece" was Booklist contributor Frank Caso, and a Publishers Weekly reviewer also commented on Wilson's "vivid picture of Jerusalem." The plot of the novel revolves around the efforts of British-born painter Mark Bloomberg, a recent arrival in Jerusalem, to solve the mystery of an Arab man murdered on his doorstep. Reviewing the work for the Washington Post, Gershom Gorenberg commented: "The story is … just out of focus as a mystery, but it doesn't matter. Wilson has down the irritating macho tone of the old-fashioned detective genre." Gorenberg added: "At the start, the question of who killed De Groot is tangled enough to keep you reading long after you've decided to put the book down and go to sleep for the night. Yet by halfway through the story, you pretty much know who did it, and well before the end you know why. That pacing does not fit the detective genre, but you're likely to stay up late reading anyway." Richard Eder, writing in the New York Times Book Review, also praised Wilson's narrative skills: "Wilson has devised a story that tautens the sinuous strands of this period into a lethal knot. The strengths of his novel are the tension and pace of its plot." Yet plot is not everything, as Eder noted; the novel's "weakness is the thinness of its three main characters, stripped down for their roles in advancing the story and setting out its political dimensions. They are efficient but abstract; the author writes with a refinement that turns awkward when he tries to rev them up with the intense emotions their roles come to require." Caso also noticed that the secondary plots "fizzle out," yet he judged the novel to be "well written," as did a Kirkus Reviews contributor, who wrote that it contains "just the right mix of psychological incisiveness and historical drama." According to Library Journal writer Molly Abramowitz, A Palestine Affair is "a fascinating read," one that gives readers a sense of the history behind continuing conflicts in the Middle East.
Wilson's second short story collection, An Ambulance Is On the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble, features men in various types of crises often prompted by anxieties about health. In the title story, a man undergoing an MRI reexamines his life; in "Fundamentals," which a Publishers Weekly reviewer considered a "highlight" of the collection, the female narrator relates her affair with a British Jew with a secret; in "Fat Twins," a father vacationing in Jamaica attempts to reconnect with his teenage son. The Publishers Weekly contributor praised Wilson as a "deft, subtle writer" whose gently comic tales result in "modest epiphanies." Jim Coan, reviewing the book in Library Journal, described it as "elegantly written with humor and grit."
In addition to writing fiction, Wilson has published two volumes of literary criticism devoted to the works of Saul Bellow. The first book, On Bellow's Planet: Readings From the Dark Side, is a consideration of Bellow's novels as depictions of an essentially uncaring world. Jeanne Braham, in her review for Modern Fiction Studies, noted that On Bellow's Planet "has its fascinations even if the argument is constructed by a little card-stacking." A Booklist contributor called On Bellow's Planet "a solid, long-needed addition to the canon of Bellow studies." In Herzog: The Limits of Ideas, Wilson concentrates on Bellow's novel Herzog, a highly acclaimed work in which the hero writes letters to historical philosophers. A Choice contributor recommended Wilson's study of the novel "for all readers of Bellow."
The life and career of painter Marc Chagall is the subject of Wilson's well-received first biography, a volume in Schocken's "Jewish Encounters" series. Marc Chagall traces the painter's roots in his native Belorussia, his education in St. Petersburg and Paris, his mar- riage, his flight from occupied France in 1941, and his later years in New York City. Wilson also discusses Chagall's works, and how the painter's interest in Jewish and Christian mysticism influenced his subject matter. A writer for Kirkus Reviews observed that the book suffers from brevity, but is written "with clarity and compassion." Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, admired Wilson's ability to illuminate "in fresh and penetrating ways the mysteries and sorrows inherent in Chagall's complex work." New York Times Book Review contributor Tara McKelvey described Marc Chagall as a "lovely, wise book."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
ARTnews, May, 2007, Hilarie M. Sheets, review of Marc Chagall, p. 118.
Booklist, September 1, 1985, review of On Bellow's Planet: Readings From the Dark Side, p. 20; May 15, 2003, Frank Caso, review of A Palestine Affair, p. 1641; March 15, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of Marc Chagall, p. 13.
Books, March 25, 2007, Helen McLean, "Illuminating Biography Offers Insight into the Life and Art of Marc Chagall," p. 9.
Boston Globe, August 20, 2003, David Mehegan, "Jonathan Wilson," review of A Palestine Affair, p. D1.
Boston Magazine, February, 2005, Andrew Rimas, review of An Ambulance Is On the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble, p. 198.
Choice, May, 1986, review of On Bellow's Planet, pp. 1395-1396; June, 1990, review of Herzog: The Limits of Ideas, p. 6682.
Christian Science Monitor, November 13, 1995, Merle Rubin, review of The Hiding Room, p. 13.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2003, review of A Palestine Affair, pp. 569-570; February 1, 2007, review of Marc Chagall, p. 118.
Kliatt, May, 2006, Daniel Levinson, review of An Ambulance Is On the Way, p. 28.
Library Journal, July, 1995, Molly Abramowitz, reviews of The Hiding Room and Schoom, p. 125; May 1, 2003, Molly Abramowitz, review of A Palestine Affair, p. 158; January 1, 2005, Jim Coan, review of An Ambulance Is On the Way, p. 104.
Los Angeles Times, August 31, 1995, Richard Eder, review of The Hiding Room, p. E10.
Modern Fiction Studies, winter, 1986, Jeanne Braham, review of On Bellow's Planet, pp. 619-623.
New York Times Book Review, September 3, 1995, David Gates, reviews of Schoom and The Hiding Room, p. 10; June 22, 2003, Richard Eder, "Trouble in Balfourland," review of A Palestine Affair, p. 7; September 7, 2007, Tara McKelvey, review of Marc Chagall.
Publishers Weekly, May 22, 1995, review of The Hiding Room, pp. 45-46; June 26, 1995, review of Schoom, p. 104; May 12, 2003, review of A Palestine Affair, p. 44; January 17, 2005, review of An Ambulance Is On the Way, p. 34; January 15, 2007, review of Marc Chagall, p. 44.
Studies in Short Fiction, summer, 1997, Rob Jacklowsky, review of Schoom, p. 409.
Times Literary Supplement, August 6, 1993, Bryan Cheyette, review of Schoom, p. 20; November 17, 1995, Peter Sherwood, review of The Hiding Room, p. 27.
Washington Post, June 8, 2003, Gershom Gorenberg, "A Prayer before Dying," review of A Palestine Affair, p. T6.