Spectator – Hard Truths of ‘Hamburg’

Polish journalist Hanna Krall’s “The Woman From Hamburg: And Other True Stories” (Other Press, $19) is based on interviews she did that in some way involved the Holocaust. But when one of the 12 stories was recently featured in The New Yorker’s fiction issue, an accompanying note explained that her writing is indeed factual.

The 60-something Krall was a reporter for Polityka from 1957 to 1981 when martial law was imposed and her publications were banned. Her award-winning books have been translated into 15 languages, (the English version is by Madeline G. Levine). Yet the boundary between fact and fiction can seem blurred in her work, for Krall writes in an unadorned but intimate style, moving in fractured time, creating a rhythm that might resemble contemporary fiction.

“My work as a reporter has taught me that logical stories without riddles and holes in them, in which everything is obvious, tend to be untrue,” Krall wrote in one of the “Hamburg” stories. “And things that cannot be explained in any fashion really do happen.”

In “Portrait With a Bullet in the Jaw,” Blatt is a survivor living in California. Krall accompanies him back to his village, where they try to meet up with the Polish man who had agreed to hide him and two friends and then ordered them killed. Blatt was the only one to escape; the bullet intended to kill him has remained lodged in his jaw for more than 50 years.

When a man asks him why he holds onto the bullet. Blatt realizes that without it, he would “lose everything. If I had it removed, I would lose it, and this way it sits in my jaw and I know that it’s there.”

In another story, a Jewish woman finds refuge with a childless Polish couple in 1943, hiding out in their closet. She becomes pregnant; the wife begins to go out with pillows under her clothing, and then takes the baby out as though it were her own. The Jewish woman slips away, and the couple raise the child. As a young woman, she finds out the truth of her parents and then travels to meet “the woman from Hamburg” who tells her, “I had to agree to everything. I wanted to live.” And then she says, “Don’t ever come here again.”

Krall pays great attention to detail — the ribbons sewn onto a pillow used to create the look of pregnancy, for example.

As she once explained in an interview, “We know the world through details. We never see it in its entirety, only its fragments. And that’s how you should write about the world, making sure you select the fragments that really matter.”


Heeb Crosses the Pond

Does edgy Jewish humor translate? The New York-based magazine Heeb is coming to England — but whether the United Kingdom’s rather reserved Jewish population will appreciate the magazine’s offbeat urban style remains to be seen.

The magazine’s British launch was held recently at a plush theater in north London during a Jewish film festival, organized in association with the Jewish Community Centre for London.

The four-day festival saw a succession of innovative Jewish films that, according to publicity materials, trod “the line between the holy and profane, the particular and the universal, the earnest and the irreverent” — sentiments that equally could describe Heeb.

The magazine’s cheeky title alone — a self-conscious attempt to reclaim an ethnic slur — guaranteed it mounds of publicity before its February 2002 debut in New York. Its iconoclastic style soon brought it into conflict with mainstream Judaism, most notably when the Anti-Defamation League reacted with outrage to Heeb’s parody of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which depicted Jesus wearing a tallit as a loincloth and a bare-breasted Virgin Mary with body piercings.

Nevertheless, by melding popular culture with controversy and kitsch — covers have included a disc jockey spinning a record-shaped matzah and an ultra-Orthodox Jew in a Superman costume — the publication had a distribution of around 35,000, with an estimated readership of 150,000, according to Joshua Neuman, Heeb’s editor in chief and publisher. Most readers are in the United States, though the magazine also has subscribers in Canada, Australia and the Caribbean.

Bringing the magazine to England seemed to be the next logical step.

Given the size of the U.K. Jewish community — less than 300,000 — Heeb is aiming for a small niche.

Lawyer Darren Braham, 27, likes Heeb’s “out-there topics,” but believes most U.K. Jews won’t see it the same way.

“The north London Jewish attitude is different than the New York attitude,” he said. “We’re a lot more muted over here.”

His journalist friend Alex Sholem, 26, agreed. A few months ago, Sholem ordered a T-shirt from Heeb’s Jewcy clothing line. He liked the shirt — emblazoned with a picture of a bearded figure holding the Ten Commandments and the logo “Moses is my homeboy” — but he’s unsure about the magazine itself.

“By its nature, it uses a lot of pop-culture references that will go over the heads of a lot of London Jews,” Sholem said.

While it’s refreshing to read a Jewish publication that isn’t obsessed with communal wrangling, anti-Semitism or Israel, he said, “I’d be surprised if it took off or had more than a very small cult following. There isn’t the audience for it. The majority of Jewish youth here is just so homogenous and mainstream in their taste.”

All the Tenacity

All the Tenacity

in the World

Neglected by publishing and the press, author Robert AnthonySiegel is out pitching his funny first novel by himself

By Robert Eshman, Associate Editor

For Robert Anthony Siegel,April is indeed the cruelest month.Siegel’s first novel came out in April — that was kind. But so didnovels by Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. That was very,very cruel.

As book reviewers wrote fevered mini-tomes, dissecting the latestworks by the greats, and publishing-house publicity budgets emptiedto push Saints Norm, Saul and Phil, Siegel’s exceptionally funny andentertaining novel, “All the Money In the World,” received zeroattention.

It was as if the gods of Jewish literature decided to schlep downfrom their pantheon all at once just to crush poor Siegel. “It didn’thave a chance,” he says of his book.

There was a flattering one-paragraph mention in The New Yorker,but that was it. The big newspapers passed. Despite the novel’s TomWolfe-like characters and Elmore Leonardesque structure, Hollywooddidn’t come knocking. The book sold 3,000 copies from a printing of4,500. “Really, really stinky,” says Siegel, in a telephoneinterview. “Worse than a thin volume of avant-garde poetry. Itwouldn’t even register as a disaster.” The publisher told Siegel thatif he wanted publicity, he could pay for it himself.

And that’s what Siegel has done. Using connections and cold calls,he has pitched for book reviews and interviews, and has arrangedreadings in bookstores across the country. On Thursday, Aug. 28, at 7p.m., he will read at Dutton’s Brentwood Bookstore. What’s remarkableis that he doesn’t bemoan his fate as a victim of publishing’scontinuing abandonment of the unknown novelist. Getting published atall was a big enough break, he says. “All I really ever wanted to dois write.”

Siegel’s own life roughly parallels that of Jason Glasser, the sonof his novel’s protagonist. Born into a family of lawyers — hisfather is a Manhattan criminal defense attorney, his mother a lawyerfor the city government — Siegel attended Harvard, then went on topursue graduate studies at Tokyo University and the University ofIowa Writer’s Workshop.

Determined to be a novelist, he supported his habit with years ofodd and even odder jobs — selling office furniture to Japanesecorporations, leading Japanese tourists around Manhattan. When he hitbottom as a door-to-door salesman, his father hired him as aparalegal. The job put Siegel in contact with both the high rollersand lowlifes that populate the New York legal world, and he dulypopulated his book with them.

He thought that the too-complicated, over-the-top legal thrillersof John Grisham, Scott Turow, et. al. paled in comparison to the realthing. “They weren’t very thrilling,” Siegel says of the others’novels. “I realized nobody has ever talked about this world like Icould talk about it.”

But the characters who provide the book its emotional depth areJason Glasser’s family members, whom Siegel based loosely oninhabitants of his own family tree. In one of the book’s most vividpassages, a battered knot of these characters returns for alate-night cruise through the Lower East Side of their childhood.”It’s their roots, and it’s my roots,” says Siegel. “Their pastexplains their relationship to work, to money, to luxury and thequest for status.”

As to whether there’s any fact in the fictional character of LouGlasser, whose son watches him get convicted on criminal charges,Siegel takes the Fifth. “He’s had his ups and downs,” Siegel says ofhis father, Stanley, “but he’s still an attorney.”

In fact, Siegel says that his family was entirely supportive ofhis literary effort. He worked on his novel for four years beforelanding a publisher and then spent two years completing it.Meanwhile, his Harvard peers went on to their junior partnerships andWall Street jobs.

“I felt that desperation intensely,” says the 35-year-old author.”They’d go out to celebrate something, and I literally couldn’tafford to go.”

Siegel now works as an editor at State University of New York atStony Brook while he’s writing his next novel, which uses the worldof medicine for background.

Meanwhile, he keeps creating any opportunity he can to promote”All the Money in the World.” His reading at Dutton’snot-so-coincidentally coincides with another reason for his trip toLos Angeles: Three days after the reading, Siegel will marry novelistKaren Bender at a ceremony in Santa Monica.

Watching Father Fail

Our story begins with Lou Glasser. A successful criminal defenselawyer, Glasser is a man of great skill and large appetites. When wemeet him on the first page of Robert Anthony Siegel’s moving andentertaining first novel, “All the Money in the World” (Random House,$23), Glasser is eating the second of two breakfasts.

Not long afterward, the sixtysomething lawyer discovers that hislongtime client, a millionaire drug importer, has cut a deal withfederal attorneys, implicating Glasser.

As the lawyer’s life unravels, it is up to his Harvard-educatedson, Jason, to make sense of the catastrophe, to determine hisfather’s guilt or innocence, and to try to get on with his own life.

Ambiguity abounds: Maybe Lou Glasser is totally innocent, or maybenot. “Everybody gets a little dirty,” says Lou to his son, a littletoo-offhandedly. “You get splashed.”

The book is too much fun to give away. Suffice it to say that thepain of Glasser pere’s downward spiral is somehow soothed by theawareness and insight that it draws forth from Glasser fils. This isa coming-of-age story — Jason watches his father’s predicamentunfold like a hard-bitten morality tale. What he takes away is muchmore than his father ever learns.

To say that Siegel is not yet the equal of Tom Wolfe is only a wayof praising by faint damnation. From WASP lawyers to overachievingDA’s to Rocco Petruccio — a night-school-trained lawyer who dealt in”the bottom of the criminal status hierarchy…especiallyprostitutes, whom he handled like a wholesaler, giving pimpsdiscounts for volume” — Siegel comes as close as Wolfe did in”Bonfire of the Vanities” to capturing the petty competitions andmajor stakes of New York law.

The lessons of Jason’s Jewish forebears echo across these pages.Most painfully, there’s grandfather Morris, a bricklayer crushed bythe Depression who becomes a petty gambler, raising sons who haveeven greater yearnings and hardly more scruples. Toward the book’send, the three Glasser men — Lou, Jason and Uncle Eddy —