Leslie Fiedler #2

An interview with cultural theorist Leslie Fiedler in his home in Buffalo, New York.

00:00Copy video clip URL Static. prepare for the interview. A crew member puts a lavalier microphone on Fiedler.

00:43Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks how he feels about Judaism. “It wasn’t a reality for my father, grandfather. They were turning their backs on that heritage. I was “bar mitzvahed” but only because the family was pressured. I argued the existence of god with the rabbi. Many years later I became interested in who I was. After World War Two, I learned Hebrew at Harvard Divinity School, 1946, 47. We read the old testament. I reconstructed rituals, seders. The first family seder I gave was one I gave myself.”

03:29Copy video clip URL “Your new novel, The Messenger Will Come No More, is deeply involved with Judaism and Christianity. And also the whole political situation of Israel. It takes place in ancient and present day Israel. It’s erudite and funny.” The interview notes the book reminds him of Pale Fire. Fiedler says people didn’t understand that the book is a joke. The humor is essential.

5:00Copy video clip URL The interviewer reads a bit of the new novel. Jacob, the main character, finds scrolls in the desert. He provides a glossary to define terms in the Bible. This is the definition for The Bible: “the book, or books; an arrogant term ascribing to old testament and the new; special authority denied to the mythologies of people other than inherent of Judaism and the other two intolerant sects derived from that faith, that is Christianity and Islam.” That reminds me so much of Pale Fire.

05:56Copy video clip URL Fielder says he had a good time writing the book. He says he’s not sure if it’s really him coming to terms with Judaism, because this has little sentimentality. The interviewer notes there is a deep series of emotional tones. “It has more anguish than any of your novels.”

07:00Copy video clip URL “The books comes out of a miserable period in my life. Science Fiction was a mode I found necessary to cope with a period of anguish and loneliness in my life. This is a book about dying and dying alone.” He notes that he isolates the main character until he confronts the fact of this death, his existence and questioning if higher powers exist or if they make a difference even if they do exist. “Science Fiction is, for me, a mode for a certain kind of skepticism. In some crazy way it’s also a pious book. It’s my attempt to come to terms with the traditions.”

09:23Copy video clip URL The interviewer notes that “Jacob was your father’s name.” “The other character is Eliezar, my Hebrew name is Eliezar Aaron. Jacob is translating the scrolls Eliezar left behind.” The interviewer notes he had trouble with the book in the beginning. “The more I got into it, though, the more I liked it.” He reads another selection. Jacob is getting ready to die and trying to finish his translation before he does. “I am convinced finally there’s nothing special in my prosaic case. Every man must die like me, deserved by all, yet ground down by the hammer and anvil of make and female, by which we were forged in the beginning. Not just heroes, as the greeks believe, but all mortals, as the Jews knew are destroyed in the war of egg against seed, mother against father, before we are even ourselves. Then mother against son, girl against boy, wife against husband, daughter against father. And when we are dead, our daughters continue it against our sons. Until the first grandchild, the cycle is ready to being again …. we remain forever alone. There is no other way.”

11:27Copy video clip URL Fiedler responds. “As you read that, I am reminded of a poem I read a long time ago which says much the same thing. It’s called ‘Call it Sleep.’ I wrote it after reading ‘Call it Sleep’ by Henry Roth. He recites: “One must kill, one betray, the angst anguish, the yielding of yin, under the random evasion of play, where does the child begin.” The polarity of the universe, which goes with Chinese philosophy. The book is a product of something personal and trivial, the break up of my first marriage.

13:29Copy video clip URL The interviewer talks more about Fiedler’s poetry. “The first thing you ever published was a poem.”  Fiedler notes the first poem he published was when he was seven years old. “It was read publicly in an assembly of the student body of  the school. It was called Mercury’s Invention of the Liar.” “From 1950-60 you published 42 poems. How many have you published in the last 15 years?” “Few. The last one was published by the poetry room here (in Buffalo). I write poem occasionally. I keep thinking I’ll have a period in my life where I go back to writing poetry. I’ve thought about putting a volume together. In the Fielder Reader there are a few poems.”

16:00Copy video clip URL “I first knew you as a teacher, not a writer. Few people know that you collaborated on a book on essays on continuing education (The Continuing Debate: Essays on Education for Freshmen) with Jacob Vinocur. How did that book come about?” “It was a genuine collaboration.” Fiedler notes he was liberal, Vinocur was conservative. “It was all about freeing the mind from my point of view, shaping the mind from his point of view.” He wrote one other textbook and thought that those would provide enough money to free him for the kind of creative writing he wanted to do. Clearly, he says, he was a teacher primarily. His first book wasn’t published until he was 37 or 38. “I’m a teacher who happens to write. It’s astonishing to me that I have published 20 books.”

18:55Copy video clip URL Fielder says the thing that gives him real satisfaction now in one-to-one teaching. Tutorial. “I like working with people on dissertations. I enjoy lecturing. Small classroom teaching has few rewards for me these days.”

20:10Copy video clip URL “I was at the University of Sussex in England for a year. He notes he didn’t care for England. He can work with students from all over the world,  but not with the English. They don’t understand my style or anything about me. They fundamentally distrust American literature. They think Mark Twain is a vulgar entertainer. I lectured in Japan and they were interested in American Literature.”

22:25Copy video clip URL  They talk about Fiedler’s interest in the American writers, Bernard Malamud, John Barth, Wright Morris, and James Baldwin. “You seem to give  a good deal of recognition to them before others saw their value. Morris and Barth may not have won The National Book Award had you not been on the committee. Is that true?” “Yes. For Wright Morris, I argued the committee down. I was brash.” He notes the Southern writers on the  committee thought Barth, also a Southern writer, had become “too New York”. In the end, Fiedler says, he wore them down with Bourbon.

24:48Copy video clip URL “One of my great thrills was writing about Malamud’s novel The Natural. It was spectacular. You could tell he was a person who had some place to go.” Fiedler adds that in India to people are writing dissertations about him.

26:12Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks abut Saul Bellow. “What’s your relationship?” “I’ve known him a long time, since 1938. I was doing grad work at University of Wisconsin in Madison. I didn’t like Madison very much, so I would flee to Chicago 150 miles away. While there I met Saul Bellow. He’s an extraordinary figure. People threw away his novel. It was a story of a white anthropologist who turns into a black man. I think he’s burned all the pages. Sometimes I think I just dreamed it. We all had ambition and very little recognition. Finally his first published novel came out. Our images were tangled with each other. As years went on, we separated a little. He pretends to be anti-academic, yet always end sup teaching at university. I became less interested in his work. I simply stopped writing about him. He is a paranoid writer, all writers are. For years we’ve had a troubled relationship. The ’60s divided us. He thought I was corrupting the young including my goddaughter who is the daughter of a mutual friend. Bellow got more scared of young people as he got older, of society, there’s a lot of it in his book, Mr. Sammler’s Planet. The last I saw him was chance in England. We were both visiting our editor. She attempted to bring us together. I suggested to him we get together. He said he was busy as long as I’m in London. He’s in the business of forgetting everybody and I guess I’ll make it mine, too.”

32:51Copy video clip URL END

 

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