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Fulbright Scholar examines literary friendships

Posted 09/19/03, by Noah Tsika

Lelchuk wins grant to lecture in Russia this year, publishes new novel

Alan Lelchuk (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Alan Lelchuk, Adjunct Professor of Liberal Studies and of Jewish Studies, is in Russia this year as a recent recipient of a Fulbright Scholar grant. He is lecturing on creative writing and American literature during his stay at International University of Moscow, Russian Federation, and also plans to meet with selected students who wish to write fiction.

Lelchuk is one of approximately 800 U.S. faculty members and professionals who will travel abroad, through the Fulbright Scholar Program, to 140 countries for the 2003-04 academic year.

Established in 1946 by the late Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the program's purpose is to foster mutual understanding between people of the United States and citizens abroad.

With his novel Ziff: A Life? still in hardcover, Lelchuk was asked to give a number of readings in Russia and the Ukraine. The release of the novel coincided with Lelchuk's being awarded a Fulbright: one of the themes of Ziff is the inexorable decay of communication - between friends, between cultural allies - and the distances some will travel in order to recoup that contact. The novel follows the fictional Danny Levitan as he treks through Europe in order to conduct research on a new biography. Encountering foreign languages and customs, he realizes that he must work toward achieving the "mutual understanding" that is the purpose of the Fulbright program.

Lelchuk is quite aware that an element of the reading public will view Ziff as a thinly veiled account of his friendship with novelist Philip Roth - as a commentary on authentic Jewish-American literary comradeship.

The novel opens with Levitan, "a down and out writer," receiving a fax from a publisher accepting his proposal to write a biography of the fictional Arthur Ziff, "one of the two or three most famous (serious) writers in the country, maybe in the world." Perplexed - for he had suggested no such thing - Levitan initially decides to respond to the fax with a dismissive "Very funny." Soon, though, his mystification bends into a certain relaxed fascination, and Levitan, for lack of a more fertile project, finally agrees to pen the biography.

The twist is that Levitan and Ziff are on-again, off-again friends. The novel, then, becomes a meditation on themes of Jewish-American literary collaboration. While some critics have attached a language of competition to this particular theme, Lelchuk is quick to clear the air.

"The subject is of a literary friendship - not infighting," Lelchuk said. "It interests me because it hasn't been done in recent fiction with any real complexity or irony, and because I have been involved in several long literary friendships in my life, each of a different nature."

Lelchuk is quite aware that an element of the reading public will view Ziff as a thinly veiled account of his friendship with novelist Philip Roth - as a commentary on authentic Jewish-American literary comradeship. Roth - author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Pastoral, about the rude awakening of a Jewish basketball hero - and Lelchuk have been friends for more than 30 years. According to Lelchuk, it was Roth, in fact, who encouraged him to write his first novel, American Mischief, about the waywardness of 1960s culture.

Since the 1973 publication of American Mischief, Alan Lelchuk has written seven novels, including Ziff, and: Miriam at Thirty-Four, which The New York Times called "the best embodiment we have of the illusions, the risks, the rewards of a woman's all-out pursuit of her self;" Brooklyn Boy, about a young man's Manhattan maturation; Playing the Game, in which a team of Ivy League basketball misfits make it to the NCAA Final Four; On Home Ground, about a young boy struggling to understand his Russian-immigrant father; Shrinking, about the brutally comic relationship between a loyal but neurotic fan and a harried literary writer; and Miriam in Her Forties, which concerns Miriam 20 years later still trying to work out that "pursuit of self."

Lelchuk's latest novel, unlike the others, is primarily about the Jewish-American literati's need for both unison and discord, and its love of satire. For those who are besotted with what they despise, the self-defeating battle of wits never stops - and this struggle is nothing if not intensely amusing: in Ziff, as in the early novels of Philip Roth, guilt is funny.

It is important, then, to take note of Lelchuk's contemporaries, to place his Ziff within this broader context. In Phillip Roth's most famous novel, Portnoy's Complaint, the protagonist, Alexander Portnoy, is presented as an icon of Jewish-American anger. Lelchuk's Ziff mirrors part of this rage: Danny Levitan, like Portnoy, is given to rants on the status of Jewish tradition in America, and finds humor in taboo subjects.

Lelchuk's characters are fully realized examples of this contemporary sensibility. Ziff himself has truly had a life - survivor of a poor upbringing, reviled by rabbis and anti-Semitic rogues - he emerges with his drollness intact. "You only live once," he says to Levitan near the close of the novel, then adds, "Or twice, after a 'real' biography."

Explained Lelchuk, "The Arthur Ziff-Danny Levitan friendship allowed for many scenes of this irony and humor, as well as a sustained look at the realities of the writing life."

As he prepares for his Russian lectureship, Lelchuk plans to continue his examination of this theme. Like Ziff, he hopes to complete a novel about Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat and Holocaust hero who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from genocide. In this context, then, Lelchuk can be viewed as both Danny Levitan and Arthur Ziff. Whether one wishes to link him to one or both of the characters, Lelchuk says, is entirely a matter of choice.

For an author so concerned with the state of tradition in Jewish America, participating in the Fulbright exchange program seems a logical next step. "The purpose [of the program]," said Fulbright in 1946, "is to acquaint Americans with the world as it is and to acquaint students and scholars with America as it is."

The exchange program, according to its founder, can help to reconcile some of life's more thorny conflicts, like the cultural battle that is the subject of Ziff: A Life? Quoted in historian Haynes Johnson's book Fulbright the Dissenter, Fulbright said: "The exchange program is the only thing that reconciles me to all the difficulties of political life. It's the only activity that gives me some hope that the human race won't commit suicide, though I still wouldn't count on it."

By Noah Tsika '05

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