I’m sitting with my husband in the packed and darkened auditorium at Royce Hall in UCLA. It’s the night of the LA Times Book Prizes, but we might as well be at some Hollywood awards show: The stage is decorated like the set of a movie — Sean Penn is sitting two seats to my right; Bruce Dern and Mike Farrell are rumored to be somewhere in the audience; and a tall, slim woman with long, dark hair and very pronounced curves has just appeared from stage left, surrounded by a halo of light, to bring to the presenter a sealed envelope bearing the name — not of “the winner,” but of “the person to whom the award goes.”
Earlier, master of ceremonies Jim Lehrer asked the audience to think of him as an author first, and everything else second, because he has written and published for far longer than he has had a television career.
Now, M.G. Lord opens the envelope. The Science and Technology award, she says, goes to Eric R. Kandel, author of “In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind.” Music blares, the spotlight abandons the curvaceous presenter in favor of the section in the audience where finalists from each category are seated, and Kandel makes his way up the steps and to the podium.
He looks somewhere in his late seventies. He’s wearing a very sharp gray suit and a red bow tie, and he appears every bit as distinguished and scholarly as you might expect from a Columbia University professor. He says he’s genuinely pleased to be receiving this award — which is nice of him, I think, given that this isn’t the first time he has found himself on a stage delivering an acceptance speech: Before making his way to Los Angeles and Royce Hall, Kandel has garnered the National Medal of Honor, the Wolf Prize, the Gairdner International Award, and, in the year 2000, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
When he says that this award means as much to him as the Nobel, a chuckle rises from the audience and quickly spills into applause. But Kandel isn’t joking. “I’ve been asking myself,” he says, “what the difference is between being here and being in Stockholm.” Again, there’s laughter from the audience.
For one thing, he says, he knew ahead of time to prepare an acceptance speech for Stockholm; for another, here he is among authors who write not just about science, but about everything else in the world as well. In other words, this, to him, is a more intimidating crowd than a room full of fellow Nobel winners.
Not that any of the writers in the audience believes him, but I think we’re grateful for the complement nevertheless.
I go home that night and look up Kandel’s history online. I learn that he was born in Vienna in 1929, escaped the Nazis in 1939. I read about his many degrees and countless achievements, about his research and writings in scientific fields the names of which I can barely pronounce. Forget Sean Penn and Bruce Dern, I tell my kids. Eric Kandel was by far the biggest hit of the evening.
The next day, in the green room, I’m sitting with two friends when Kandel walks up and asks if he can join us at our table. It’s lunch hour, the place is packed, and he needs to share a table with someone, but I still think this is an act of God — like when Michael Jordan appeared out of thin air on a basketball court in an inner-city neighborhood in the middle of a sweltering summer afternoon, and passed the ball to the wide-eyed children in those television ads for some sporting good or other. I tell Kandel as much, and he laughs, puts his plate down and starts asking about me and the others at the table — what we write and where we come from, if we like our agents and publishers.
I ask him what book he’s working on, and I gather from his response that it has something to do with Freud and European Expressionism, but he’s more interested in finding out how many children I have than in explaining the subject matter of his book. I ask how long he’s staying in Los Angeles — only till Sunday, and then he’s off to New York, Paris, then Vienna, where he is to receive another award.
He offers that he has a son in New York, and a daughter — Minoosh — in San Francisco. He says he likes his children’s spouses, thank God; they’re good people and responsible parents. He has four grandchildren, and he doesn’t see them as often as he would like, what with his teaching schedule and all the traveling he has to do, but they all make a point of getting together for the holidays.
People come up to him every few minutes and ask him to sign their books, and he interrupts what he’s saying, engages in cordial conversation with the fans, then picks up with me where he left off. Two agents, an editor, a pair of newspaper reporters stop by to pay their respects, and end up staying. Before I know it, we’re all exchanging high holiday stories and talking about our children, how quickly they seem to have grown up, how we wish they wouldn’t take off for the other side of the country every time the wind blows, how we hope that they will observe Jewish traditions whether or not we’re there to enforce it.
“When he was alive,” Kandel says, “my father had us all at his home for every Jewish holiday. After he died, it fell upon me to do the same.”
What is the difference between being here and in Stockholm? I wonder. At the end of the day, between one Jew and another, perhaps not very much.
Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her new novel, “Caspian Rain,” will be published this fall. Gina Nahai’s column appears monthly in The Journal.