Epstein, Leslie

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Nationality: American. Born: Los Angeles, 4 May 1938. Education: Yale College, New Haven, Connecticut, 1956-60, B.A. (summa cum laude) 1960; Merton College, Oxford (Rhodes scholar), 1960-62, Dip. Anthro. 1962; University of California, Los Angeles, M.A. in theatre arts 1963; Yale Drama School, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, D.F.A. 1976. Family: Married Ilene Epstein in 1969; one daughter and two sons. Career: Lecturer and professor, Queens College, City University of New York, 1965-68. Since 1978 professor of English and director of graduate creative writing program, Boston University. Visiting professor, Lane College, Summer 1964, Silliman College, Spring 1972; Fulbright research fellow, Groningen University, Netherlands, 1972-73; visiting professor, Johns Hopkins University, Spring 1977. Awards: Samuel Goldwyn Creative Writing award, University of California, Los Angeles, 1963; Lemist Esler fellowship, Yale Drama School, 1963-65; award, 1969, and fellowship grant, 1972, 1981-82, National Endowment for the Arts; Playboy editors' award for non-fiction, 1971; City University of New York research grant, 1972; New York State Council on the Arts fellowship, 1976; Guggenheim fellowship, 1977-78; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award, 1977; Ingram Merill Foundation grants, 1981 and 1982; Boston University Kahn prize. Member: American Academy of Rhodes Scholars. Agent: Lane Zachary, 1776 Broadway, Ste. 1405, New York, NY 10019, U.S.A.



P.D. Kimerakov. 1975.

King of the Jews: A Novel of the Holocaust. 1979; as The Elder, 1979.

Regina. 1982.

Pinto and Sons. 1990.

Pandaemonium. 1997.

Ice Fire Water: A Leib Goldkorn Cocktail. 1999.

Short Stories

The Steinway Quintet Plus Four. 1976.

Goldkorn Tales. 1985.


Critical Studies:

"American Authors and Ghetto Kings: Challenges and Perplexities" by Ellen Schiff, in America and the Holocaust, edited by Sanford Finsker and Jack Fishcel, 1984; "Even the Smallest Position" by Frederick Busch, in The Georgia Review, 38(3), Fall 1984, pp. 525-41; "King of the Jews Reconsidered" by Irene C. Goldman, in Midstream, 32(4), April 1986, pp. 56-58; "Power and Powerlessness in the Judenrat: Chairman M. C. Rumkowski As King of the Jews" by Sidney Krome, in West Virginia University Philological Papers, 38, 1992, pp. 258-69; "The Fantastic in Holocaust Literature: Writing and Unwriting the Unbearable" by Michael Yogev, in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 5,(2), 18, 1993, pp. 32-49; "An Interview with Leslie Epstein" by Mark Brownlow, in Agni, 39, 1994, pp. 64-82; "'Emotion Recollected in Tranquillity?' Representing the Holocaust in Fiction" by Rudiger Kunow, in Emotion in Postmodernism, edited by Gerhard Hoffmann and Alfred Hornung, 1997.

* * *

Hollywood is the world's dream factory, a place where myths are manufactured and the imagination often seems to outstrip reality. Leslie Epstein knows this milieu with an intimacy few contemporary writers can match. As the son of Philip Epstein and the nephew of Julius Epstein—screenwriters who coauthored Casablanca —he watched the studio crowd parade into the family living room from a unique vantage point—upstairs and in p.j.'s.

If Hollywood contributed to Epstein's Sunset Boulevard street smarts, his years at Yale (l956-l960) added a significant measure of academic anchoring. That he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship after graduation suggests how intellectually accomplished the young Epstein was. What the formula leaves out, however, is how provocative and daring Epstein could be as a creative writer. His natural inclination is to link lighthearted humor with weighty subjects, and this is especially so when the Holocaust occupies a central place in his narratives.

According to Epstein, the worst crime that one writing about the Holocaust can commit is sentimentality. Overly pious writers sacrifice the essentials of good fiction and in the process do no favor either to a better understanding of the Holocaust (if such an "understanding" is, indeed, possible) or to fiction itself. Instead, Epstein sneaks up on the Holocaust from an oblique angle, always insisting that understatement will be more effective than overt preaching.

Writing in the pages of the New York Times Book Review , Katha Politt declares that "if writers got gold stars for the risks they took, Leslie Epstein would get a handful." Whether the subject is Cold War politics (P.D. Kimerakov ) or the remnants of Old World Jewish culture adrift in the violent, drug-ridden world of the contemporary Lower East Side (the Golkorn series), Epstein brings a satirical wit to all that his fictive eye imagines. The yoking of disparate elements is his trademark, one that often divides critics into those who applaud his ambition and those who wish he would write more traditional narratives.

It is, however, with his novels that center on the Holocaust—directly focusing on the concentration camp world of King of the Jews (1979) or indirectly evoking the Holocaust through an elaborately constructed metaphor of a Western shoot-out in Pandaemonum (1997)—that the reader sees Epstein's abiding concern with the twentieth century's most horrific crime. Rightly or wrongly, trivialization is the charge that has dogged his works. To write Holocaust fiction has, to some, always seemed a contradiction in terms, but his novels present the moral/intellectual dilemmas that embroil ordinary characters placed in extraordinary circumstances. What might have been an unmitigated disaster in less skillful hands becomes novels with equal measures of daring and honesty.

Epstein, particularly in King of the Jews, pioneered the very possibility of Holocaust fiction by Jewish-American authors. He often paid dearly for not maintaining a respectful silence, but his novels probe what it was like to live at a time when no decision, no action, could have made a difference. His mordant humor became a way of turning these doomed lives into something approaching myth. In this sense, the very contemporary Epstein relies on the much older traditions of Yiddish storytelling and the complicated ways that a bittersweet humor can become simultaneously a shield and a weapon.

—Sanford Pinsker

See the essays on Ice Fire Water: A Leib Goldkorn Cocktail and King of the Jews: A Novel of the Holocaust.

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