Shalom Auslander spoke to Bidisha about his new book Hope; A Tragedy at JBW on Sunday 26th February. You can view a video of the conversation here.
Here is a list of words reviewers used to describe Shalom Auslander’s new book Hope: A Tragedy – dark, disaster and retribution, twisted, irreverent, caustic, transgressive, heartbreaking, staggeringly nervy, poisonously funny, scabrously funny, wilfully outrageous, uncomfortably hilarious as it is shockingly offensive, hilariously bitter and gloriously insensitive.
Auslander himself was described as – paranoid, guilt-ridden, self-loathing Diaspora kvetch and – my favourite – Not Good for the Jews.
Auslander’s website – featuring a bleak image of a padded cell (with the door open, mind you) – gives the following information about the plot set-up:
‘The rural town of Stockton, New York, is famous for nothing: no one was born there, no one died there, nothing of any historical import at all has ever happened there, which is why Solomon Kugel, like other urbanites fleeing their pasts and histories, decided to move his wife and young son there.’
Kugel is my kind of guy – a man determined to escape a forced narrative which somehow connects him to generations upon generations of mysterious people who had nothing to do with his life (starting from Moses and his biblical crowd, through Eastern European magical Rabbis and all the way back to contemporary war-ridden Middle East). This is the tribe, the clan, the Jewish chain-gang to which, apparently, you belong. Want it or not.
A people who, according to a Publishers Weekly review of the book, are characterised by “self-deprecation, mordant compliance, hypochondria, and a total lack of surprise when disaster occurs”.
I feel for Kugel. Growing up in Tel Aviv, I was also hoping to be able to escape history, to become neutral, to de-Jew myself. I moved to Berlin (‘How could you?? After what the Germans did to us??”) and from there to London (“Be careful, everyone knows that the British are especially antisemitic”). I did not live in Hendon, never been to a synagogue, avoided all religious holidays and definitely did not circumcise my son. I decorate a Christmas tree every year, for Christ’s sake!
I was doing quite well until, three years ago, broke and desperate, I took up a job at a London Jewish cultural institute. Like Kugel, I found a rattling – but still breathing! – skeleton in that dark, forgotten attic of London cultural life.
Through work I came across what was, for me, a new breed of Jews. These people were nothing like the ones I grew up with in Tel Aviv and who, plainly, couldn’t give a monkey’s about anything Jewish. These were people who defined themselves by the difference between their team and everyone else’s, who felt grateful to be here, compelled to demonstrate how well they adjusted to British life and driven by a very distinct mix of sentiments: fear and self congratulation. And a strange enthusiasm for antisemitism, real or imaginary.
Auslander’s gift for dark, disturbing, politically incorrect observation is beautifully appropriate for the stories he tells. He hates Philip Roth and his masculine school of self obsession. He likes Kafka’s existential dilemmas, Becket’s existential misery. He swears and tells holocaust jokes. Shalom Auslander is totally my kind of guy and I wish he moved to London for a bit to write about the Becks of Golders Green, the over enthusiastic youth of Habonim and the paranoid self appointed officers of the CST.
Or maybe I wish him a release from all this, a chance to re-invent himself as a truly free man and some relief from history.
Shiri Shalmy curated Judah Passow’s photographic exhibition, No Place Like Home, still on at the Jewish Museum.