Author Joseph Epstein was born and educated in Chicago. He was a lecturer in English and writing at Northwestern University from 1974 to 2002 and editor of the Phi Beta Kappa society magazine American Scholar from 1975 to 1997. He has published numerous books of essays and short fiction including Envy, Snobbery: The American Version, Narcissus Leaves the Pool, Life Sentences, With My Trousers Rolled, Pertinent Players, The Goldin Boys, A Line Out for a Walk, Partial Payments, Once More Around the Block, Plausible Prejudices, The Middle of My Tether, Familiar Territory, Ambition and Divorced in America. He also edited The Norton Book of Personal Essays and is a regular contributor to Commentary, The New Yorker, Harper’s, New Republic and The New York Review of Books. Joseph Epstein and his wife live in tree-lined Evanston, Illinois, where he is writing a few new books.
Joseph Epstein’s latest book is Fabulous Small Jews. The eighteen stories in it are all set in Chicago, most in the Jewish enclaves of North Side, with middle and upper class Jews populating the narratives. As Epstein observes in the conversation below, “Story tends to be about subsidiary characters, and it’s an interesting way of probing the mystery of human character, which is what interests me about a lot of these stories.” Add Epstein’s robust sense of humor and keen eye for detail, and the result is potent and illuminating story telling.
This is the Oxford of all sicknesses.
Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews
And actresses whose legs were always news.
—Karl Shapiro, “Hospital”
Robert Birnbaum: Fabulous Small Jews, it is kind of an audacious title.
Joseph Epstein: Ah, I’m glad you like it. It is a title with endless comic possibilities. Its origin is in a poem by Karl Shapiro. It’s the epigraph for this book.
RB: I can never get straight on what is an epigram and what is an epigraph…
JE: And there is epitaph, which you have to worry about too.
RB: I’m clear on that one. Shapiro was a Chicago guy, wasn’t he?
JE: Baltimore, he later drifted to Chicago and spent a lot of his life in Chicago and he was editor of Poetry magazine. He taught at Illinois. He’s sort of a half a Chicago guy. I read that poem maybe twenty-five years ago, and it’s just never left my mind. I just love the rhythm of it. Fabulous small Jews (in a theatrical voice). [laughs]
RB: I was talking with my mother, telling her I was going to talk with you, and I told her the title of the book. Her response was, “Where do you get small Jews?”
JE: Your mother lives in Lincolnwood, so she knows this terrain.
RB: I grew up in West Rogers Park, so I also know it.
JE: What was your address?
RB: 7035 N. Washtenaw.
JE: Oh wow! 6649 Campbell. We have both come a long way. You went to Rogers School. I went to Boone. God, we are from the old country.
RB: This used to be called Jewish geography.
JE: How old are you?
JE: I’m ten years older than you are.
RB: You went to Senn High School.
JE: Mather was not yet in business. Senn was an extraordinarily good place to go. It was a school for emotionally disturbed teachers.
RB: [both laugh]
JE: It was terrific fun. It was fifty-five percent Jewish. Sort of the ascending Jewish. You know, kids who wanted to be rich, whose parents were making it and the rest were working class Irish, German and Swedes and it had absolutely nothing to do with education. There were a couple of kids— and the ten years difference in our ages may have changed this a bit —but a couple of kids went to Harvard. Almost everyone else with whom I graduated, if they went to college at all —it was still a time when there was a choice— a lot of guys had fathers with golden businesses, “You’re wasting your time. Let’s go to work,” went to Illinois. The farthest you went was Michigan. That was the world. Most of the guys majored in business because it gave them the look of seriousness. They are not fucking around here. I don’t think I heard the word liberal arts until I arrived at the University of Illinois in Champagne after graduating just above the lower quarter of my class. Like 269 of 380.
RB: I did better. I was in the lowest ten percent. But Mather was an altogether different thing. It was almost totally noveau riche strivers, Ivy League aspiring…
JE: That’s right. All that craziness had [just] kicked in. When I went to college I think if you wanted to go to the Ivy League you took something called the College Boards, the dreaded SATs were not yet in business. And the school was wildly social. I touched on this in the Snobbery book, if you need documentation. I say somewhere that outside of Versailles, there was never more carefully calibrated social system. If you told me what club you were in at Senn, I could tell you your exact standing socially. Or I could tell what your father’s income was. Or whether your ate in the kitchen or in the dining room.
RB: So here you are. You have had a distinguished career, a man for all seasons and now you write a collection of stories about…
JE: Well, I have actually written an earlier collection.
RB: On fabulous small Jews?
JE: A lot of it is the same turf.
RB: The Goldin Boys?
JE: Right. There were nine stories in that collection published in 1992.
RB: So I can’t deduce that you waited or saved up these stories. Is it correct to say that fiction is not your concentration?
JE: Well, I’ve never written a novel. But I don’t think I need to write a novel.
JE: I think the story is my form. Story tends to be about subsidiary characters, and it’s an interesting way of probing the mystery of human character, which is what interests me about a lot of these stories.
RB: Is the short story making some kind of comeback?
JE: I’m not sure there is enough evidence to say either way. It was very big when The New Yorker was publishing two and three stories an issue. They now publish one. There is a lot of creative writing going on. Which is something, that for the most part, I don’t approve of. I think you should just go and write. What you get is expensive criticism and a lot of it not very good.
RB: I feel like I have talked to many storywriters in the last few months.
JE: Oh really. Who are some of the writers?
RB: Karl Iagnemma, On The Nature of Romantic Human Interaction
JE: Great title.
JE: That’s interesting. You know publishers aren’t often keen to publish short stories.
RB: I was under that impression.
JE: It would be nice if there was some really big-selling collection that would kill that shibboleth that stories don’t sell.
RB: Didn’t Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection sell? But, in any case, I thought it was the compromise that publishers made. But you have been with Houghton Mifflin long enough to call the shots.
JE: Not really. I was with Norton for a long time. This is my fifteenth book. And I signed a three-book contract: this book, Narcissus Leaves the Pool and Snobbery. Snobbery was the book they hoped would make money and it did. As I have been saying, I am now for life, a national best seller. On my tombstone it will say…
RB: Will there be enough room on your tombstone?
JE: There has to be. We’ll make room. It’ll be a big tombstone and it will say, “Decent Husband, Okay Father…”
RB: You are already writing it?
JE: National Bestseller.
RB: What will come first?
JE: “National bestseller” will be in a larger typeface.
RB: Well as long as you bring it up Tim Adams in The Guardian did one of those Gore Vidal/Anthony Lane exercises and read everything on the current bestseller list…
JE: What it means to be a best seller is that you are on the list and way I understand it is that the way they put the list together is that they call certain bookstores and they say, “What is moving most rapidly?” I was second on the list in LA; that’s as high as I got. But in LA, I was on the list for eleven weeks.
RB: LA being a city founded on that notion?
JE: It is more of a bullshit city. [laughs]
RB: It’s also the biggest book market in the country.
JE: I had a terrific amount of journalistic coverage in LA.
RB: A lot of Jews there?
JE: I’m told there are a few Jews there. Eleven or twelve. I had an astonishingly strong review from a guy named John Simon.
JE: John Simon, when I read this review, it just blew me away. He said things—and understand I know the proper measure of this as I tell you this—he said something like, “This is as good as Tocqueville and better than Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. And funnier than both.” That’s a blurb line. It’s probably not true, I say to you now. It was pleasing to get for commercial reasons. I think I was also big in San Francisco, which is a status-conscious city and New York. Chicago—snobbery in Chicago, though it exists in different ways—has never really worked. If you walk down Oak Street, which is Newbury Street in Chicago, it all feels like bullshit. Here’s Barney’s, there’s Umo or Up Your Guzoogo. Chicagoans are saying, “What schmucks these people are paying this kind of money for this shit [laughs] Why would I wear this dreck?” Other cities you can do it with a straight face.
RB: I like to maintain my expatriated Chicagoan status. Even if I didn’t love Chicago I would say I loved it given my ambivalence about Boston. Can you talk about the way Chicago is viewed from the outside—is it still the Sandburgian “City with the Big Shoulders” and so on?
JE: That’s the biggest bullshit story there is. That old cacker never got anything right. Never! “Hog butcher to the world.” No, I don’t think so. Robert Frost once said of Sandburg, they were apparently to give a poetry reading together and someone said, “Where’s Carl?” and Frost said, “He’s upstairs messing up his hair.”
RB: [both laugh]
JE: One of the great delights of my life once was —you know the books you feel you should read. I read Edmund Wilson, the critic, saying, “After John Booth, the worst thing that happened to Abe Lincoln was Sandburg.”
RB: [both laugh heartily]
JE: It’s a kind of myth-making baloney.
RB: I guess it’s appropriate that the Sandburg Village boondoggle should be named after him.
JE: I think Chicagoans have great artistic institutions. The Art Institute is a great place. The architecture is still splendid, and new stuff is always interesting. But I think they aren’t blown away by artists. And I think it’s good. It keeps you grounded in some useful way. I remember Saul Bellow, who I used to see in the late ’70s, we would go to places and I would introduce him to people sometimes and someone would say, “Are you any relation to Charlie Bellows?” He was a big defense lawyer. One day I was watching a Cub game and it was Brickhouse the glorious Brick house, and there was a guy he would call “handsome young Jim West.” (let me say in parentheses, handsome next to Brickhouse, next to which we are both dazzling, you and I) And handsome young Jim West said, “Gee I saw on the front page of the Sun Times, Sparky Anderson’s picture.” I said, “Gee what’s the Sparker doing on the front page? I read the front page and it seem like a guy named Bellow won the Nobel Prize.” That’s Chicago and it’s good. If you are a writer you don’t expect people to say [in hushed tones], “Oh Mr. Epstein.” Sometimes it does happen and it’s a delight, but you are never a lion. And that’s good. In New York, one might be. It’s healthy philistinism. At thirty-seven I got a job teaching at Northwestern. Without a union card, I had no advanced degrees and was proud of it. I was living in Evanston and I call my mother and I say, “Mother, I got a job teaching at Northwestern.” She says, “Oh that’s nice. A job in the neighborhood.” Absolutely right, [laughs] all the air goes out of my tires.
RB: That’s a big Presbyterian institution.
JE: A very goyesque place. It’s actually a Methodist school.
RB: I don’t know the difference.
JE: You don’t carefully distinguish among goyem.
RB: Presbyterian struck me as…
JE: The coldest in some way? I think that’s right. There was a sociology of Protestantism that went: A Methodist is a Baptist with shoes. A Presbyterian is a Methodist who has been to college. An Episcopalian is a Presbyterian who is living off his investments. This has all changed now. Now an Episcopalian is, I suppose, someone heading a campaign against AIDS.
RB: Can you talk more about teaching at Northwestern?
JE: It was a very nice gig, as we jazzmen say. I never had tenure and so my mother was quite right it was job in the neighborhood. I would go over and teach a couple of classes and the kids are for the most part quite bright. They have the habits of achievement. They are good students.
RB: Until they had a good football team.
JE: When they had a good football team I announced to them all standards are disappearing now. All the people who got B’s will now get A’s and so on down the line.
RB: This is totally digressive, but did you go to the bookstore over on Foster Street near the L?
JE: Great Expectations? I used to order books from there. Did you go there?
RB: Yes and I had Truman Metzel’s [the owner] wife, Nancy, as a college instructor.
JE: She later left him. Didn’t Truman daunt you? His specialty was daunting people. He’d say things like [in a deep affected voice], ” We don’t carry books like that.”
RB: I think I got in under the Nancy waiver. He endeared himself to me because he was the first merchant to extend me credit and he would discourage me from completely paying off my balance.
RB: He said if I paid it off he would worry if I were going to continue to be a customer. As long as I owed him money he felt good about it.
JE: That’s interesting. The store is closed. It was a very sloppily run shop and it was a mess, kind of. I used to order my books from Truman for my students, thinking they should see what real bookstore looks like. One year, two of the books I had ordered just didn’t come in and I called Truman, week after week. He said [in his deep affected voice], “No Joe, I haven’t heard anything.” Finally, I said Truman—the books were both from Harcourt Brace—what’s going on? The quarter is coming to a close.” He said, “Well, there’s been a little (coughs) contretemps.” I said, “What is the contretemps?” “It’s over a bill.” “Truman, fuck, why didn’t you tell me this? You could get the books for me elsewhere or something.” “Oh.” He never apologized. And I stopped sending people. It probably cost him a lot.
RB: You’re right it was a prototypical bookstore.
JE: Truman was, like a lot of serious booksellers, he was a failed Ph.D. He was a failed Ph.D. in philosophy from Chicago. A student of guy named Richard McKeon who left corpses all over the city. Pascal would not have gotten his Ph.D. from McKeon. Aristotle wouldn’t have. Nobody. He was a miserable character and he made it so hard for everybody. It’s like you and I trying to get a Ph.D. from Martin Bormann.
RB: [both laugh] You are a man of great erudition. You didn’t pursue advanced degrees. How did you figure that out so quickly?
JE: I was not a good student. I was just all right. And I have come to think that a good student is not that impressive a thing to be. A good student can tell you seven reasons for the Renaissance. Big fucking deal. [laughs] He can tell you that materialism is naturalism. Because in order to have naturalism you have to have three things that satisfy materialism and so on. I sensed, in my crude kid way, this really wasn’t where the action is. I have a cousin who died recently. A guy named Sherwin Rosen, who I loved, really. He was the chairman of the Economics Department at Chicago and at a memorial dinner for him this man Gary Becker who won a Nobel Prize in Economics said, “You know when Sherwin was a graduate student here we almost canned him because he was slow in response. If you asked Sherwin a question, he would say, ‘Gee, I am not certain,’ and then he would come back a month later. He brooded on these things. But he saw aspects in the question none of us did. Becker said being fast in response is one of the things we look for in good students. But it’s a mistake.” There is a little list one could make of very smart people who weren’t good at school. I don’t think I could have withstood the torture of graduate school.
RB: Which genius at Northwestern saw your talent?
JE: No genius at all. The way it worked was..
RB: You worked cheap?
JE: I did somewhat. That’s good. I would let them keep their cell phones on [both laugh] and pagers. “Please turn your cell phones and pagers on because I am teaching.” Remember the name Irving Howe, the literary critic.
RB: A Jewish guy.
JE: Very Jewish. Quick, name me three non-Jewish Irvings. You have three seconds. [Pauses] That’s why you are not chairman of the Economics department. [laughs].
RB: John Irving, Clifford Irving?
JE: Berlin Irving. Anyhow, I had written some things for Irving Howe’s magazine. I was freelancing at the time and he came to Evanston and he said, “You ought to work something out with teaching. It would make life a lot easier for you.” I said, “How can I do this?” And he put in a word; he had such power in his reputation and salesmanship. He just told someone in the English Department at Northwestern, “You ought to hire this guy Epstein.” I was thirty-six or thirty-seven. So I got this job and each year they somehow renewed me.
RB: And why no tenure?
JE: I didn’t really want it. It didn’t matter to me. I got a decent salary. I didn’t get one of the higher salaries. It was never the first thing on my mind.
JE: I got benefits. I am a pensioner. In fact, if you want to call me mon pensioner I would be pleased to have it. As for my erudition, among captains, I am not a captain.
RB: Among pebbles you are not a boulder.
JE: Exactly. I am someone who has read a lot of books.
RB: That should go a long way.
JE: Here is an appalling thing for me to say. I believe I have culture.
RB: For a man who has written a book on snobbery what could be appalling?
JE: [laughs] I was reading EM Forster’s novel Howard’s End. Which I hadn’t read in a long time and one of the characters say, one of the two sisters who are at the center of the novel, it’s said of her, “For Margaret culture worked, but for most of humankind it did not go at all, for it dehumanized them.” You meet all kinds of jerks who say, “You know I went to Yale and went to India and I just took Proust with me.” And he is saying three things, look at my culture. I say he’s a jack-off for even uttering a sentence like that— which I read somewhere.
RB: [both laugh]
JE: That’s not culture. Culture means, I think, that you have widened your experience enough through reading and through being a little bit thoughtful about these things that it has changed your outlook in some ways. And not necessarily made you a better human being but made you see things.
RB: Why not necessarily better?
JE: Why not necessarily? Because it doesn’t…
RB: Calling it ‘culture’ suggests a co-equivalence with a wider view…
JE: I just know so many people who have six or seven foreign languages and have read everything and have musical training and they are still dorks. You know?
RB: [Both laugh] Well, they are better dorks than they would have been.
JE: Well they are dorks with three or four languages. [laughs] For some reason, my passion for all this stuff really, its now what it is. Listen to the way I talk, will you. We don’t talk this way in West Rogers Park.
RB: No, right.
JE: Somebody once said, “Why doesn’t Joe speak American?” [laughs] But this is really the way I talk now. I don’t know how the fuck this happened. [laughs] There it is.
RB: Did you hang out at street corners when you were in high school?
JE: There was a group called the Argyle boys. Argyle and Sheridan Road and there was a drugstore called Zeitkin’s. The Argyle boys were a little poorer than Rogers Park boys, their fathers were sort of busted out salesmen and people like that. They lived in furnished apartments along Marine Drive and on Sheridan and they were wilder. But they were Jewish. So I had a little phase there with those guys. But mostly in West Rogers Park we hung out on playgrounds, shooting baskets. In late grammar school l decided…first let me say if you weren’t an athlete in my time you had better be witty.
RB: Or a rabbinical scholar?
JE: No that didn’t count for dick. You would have been beaten up regularly. [laughs] It wouldn’t have mattered. I don’t know if this is true of your experience but one of the things I find about the world I write about and the world I grew up in is that none of the positive stereotypes of Judaism adhere. We were not kids who had political idealism. Our parents did not talk about Trotsky and Stalin and the Party. I knew no one who took violin lessons. A few kids were forced to take piano and they hated every minute of it. We went to Hebrew school because were instructed to and we were bar mitzvahed. The only culture that was ever mentioned among the Jews of my parent’s generation was musical comedy. And you’d get these guys; these terrific brutes working in the scrap iron business and borax salesmen and they would go and sit there meekly with their wives and listening to Pajama Game. They’d come back and say “Gee we saw it in New York and the cast was better.” But there was no real culture. They were nice men, and I don’t mean to belittle them for not having culture. I’m glad to grow up without culture.
RB: These stories struck me, in addition to the title and that there are more stories than one expects in a story collection, as being about the concerns and issues of mature people. These are not stories about, “Should I have a coffee at the globalized coffee outlet or the independent coffee shop?” or “My girl friend broke up with me because she says I am loser.”
JE: I’m glad to hear you say that.
RB: People are dealing with death and illness. A grandfather takes responsibility for the son his son abandoned… A lunatic failed student decided to write nasty postcards to a variety of intellectuals.
JE: You caught the point. I dislike many stories that end in a kind of lyrical ambiguity. The “Daniel felt that he would never again experience the half moon hanging over the Bosphorus with the same poignance.” Fuck you, Daniel. [laughs]
RB: That sounds like a caption for a Glen Baxter drawing.
JE: I like a story where a guy has to make a decision. And the decision is going to have real consequences, often moral consequences. He is either going to take responsibility for the mess he has made or some one else has made. Or not. The other thing about these stories is that a lot of the older people— when I say older, they are people in advancing middle age which is my own condition —is that they have been caught in a cultural switch. That is to say they grew up with one set of values and now there is another. Somebody once said to me when we were kids, late adolescence, you would go into a drugstore and say [in normal voice], “Could I get a package of Luckies? and [in a very soft voice] could I get three Trojans?” Now you go in and say [in a normal voice], “Could I have package of Trojans and [whispers] and a pack of Marlboro?” [laughs] It’s very different. Have you been on Devon Avenue in the last ten years? It’s Calcutta. When I was growing up it was on the rise and Jewish lower middle class becoming upper middle class. My mother went to a place called Seymour Paison for dresses. My mother didn’t do this, but they served cocktails, goofy cocktails to Jewish women. And now you go there and it’s kids in cricket sweaters and saris and it’s so different. You go to synagogues now and some guy is playing a guitar. And it’s just madness to many of these people. I like to think of myself as a kind of chronicler of people caught in the switch. There is a lot of it going on, and they are going to die out soon.
RB: Well, first of all you notice it. People don’t seem to be aware when they are on some cultural fault line.
JE: [puts on thick round framed glasses] One of the stories…
RB: Is this your Dominick Dunne look?
JE: I am the heterosexual Truman Capote. Actually I have been wearing these round glasses for a while, and now that son of bitch is wearing them and I don’t know what to do. [Reads from a story called “Moe”] “Dinosaurs,” Lou Levin said. “Let’s face it, we are a pack of god dam dinosaurs.” Who invented lesbians, you know? [laughs] Who asked for lesbians?
RB: Maybe this is silly, but in New York perhaps the characters would not have been shocked or disoriented by changing mores and such.
JE: There are a couple of things going on. In New York there might have been more psychotherapy. Really. There would be more politics. My father’s view on politics, he hated the Tribune because it was…
RB: Anti-Semitic. Col. McCormack.
JE: …isolationist and didn’t want to go into Europe and stop the killing of the Jews. But my father’s view of politics generally was they are all bull-shitters. It’s a perfectly sound view, by the way. He would say, “An alderman’s job pays twenty five thousand dollars and a man spends three hundred thousand to get. Something is wrong here.” [laughs] Something’s wrong. And our idealism was kicked in the pants very early. It’s very healthy. Rather than your parents telling you someday the workers will unite and there will be a glorious sharing and we all be reading Goethe together…
RB: I think the world is irretrievably anti-Semitic.
JE: Ah, this is my father’s view.
RB: I recently watched a compelling film called The Believer written and directed by Henry Bean. There is a soliloquy near the end when the Jew-hating Jewish character who becomes a skinhead thug says, “Why do people hate the Jews? Because they do. Reasons? No reasons. They hate the Jews because they are Jews.” So did anyone in the marketing department at Houghton Mifflin suggest that the title of the book was not singing out to the larger community?
JE: [laughs] Actually not. They were rather taken with it. There are comic aspects of it. I went on the tour that I am on now. I was in Washington, DC, I had a media escort [picking me up at the airport], and somebody said, “He’ll be holding up your book.” I said, “What if a bevy of Hassidim, or skin heads come by?” I think anti-Semitism —I’m sort of in your condition. It’s always there, always lurking. But I think just now, it’s not as strong as it has been.
RB: The evidence being there are no pogroms or camps?
JE: In my Snobbery book I make a remark that the presidents of the three leading though still crappy universities Harvard, Yale and Princeton were all Jews. What made this impressive was that they were all mediocre Jews. [laughs] So they didn’t have to be Einsteins, Freuds and Meyer Lansky. Things have sort of calmed down. There are still individual Jew haters, people who go home and knock Jews. I myself think anti-Semitism is about envy.
RB: Another topic you have taken up recently.
JE: I don’t think the Jews make such a big thing about being “chosen” though God knows in the Bible it says this. But I think people see that Jews seem to rise for their own goofy reasons. They get big jobs and make money despite certain things and they have a certain cultural eminence. I have often wondered if I were a non-Jew I would have the calmness to find the Jews magnificent and interesting. One of the pleasures of being a Jew, I don’t have to tell you, it allows you anti-Semitism. My wife who is non-Jewish regrets it all the time that I can say these terrible things about fellow Jews and she can’t. The problem with our religion is the excommunication mechanics are so poor. [laughs] All these guys that should be kicked out.
RB: And there is no Hell.
JE: Not only is there no Hell, though there is something in the Singer story, something about Gehenna, G-e-h-e-n-n-a. It’s not so pleasant there. But more interesting there is no Heaven, which’s clear. If you look for an after life, we’re waiting for this Messiah fellow, he’s a little later than Godot.
RB: He’s been delayed.
JE: His train has been delayed.
RB: Fifteen books and years of editing The American Scholar is an impressive bit of productivity. So now you are retired from teaching are you going to write more?
JE: As to the productivity point, to you it looks productive. I know how deeply slothful I am.
RB: [both laugh]
JE: I know how many days in which I have just answered e-mail, had three phone calls and a two hour lunch. Poof, gone. They are not infrequent.
RB: What is the standard you are applying?
JE: Probably my father’s standard. You don’t run away from business. You go down at seven and you close at five thirty. That kind of thing.
RB: So if you wrote a good sentence one-day that wouldn’t be a major accomplishment.
JE: Not enough. I haven’t written one yet. [laughs] I know from the middle distance I give off the look of being prolific, which is a funny compliment to receive. I have people come up to me and say, “Gosh are you prolific.” And I want to say, “Am I any fucking good?” [laughs] “Is any of it worth shit?” Just prolific? The reason, when you said retired I reacted, is that I feel like I have been retired for years. The truth is I have had a lucky life.
RB: I was going to say that.
JE: I’m glad I beat you to it.
RB: Teaching at a nice tree-lined university.
JE: I edited a magazine for which I got a respectable salary, stayed at home. I write what I want. I get paid for it. I am basically a complainer and all the grounds for complaint have been swept out from under me. I am married to someone I love.
JE: I don’t have your dog.
RB: There are breeders in Evanston.
JE: Our building won’t allow dogs. But I have been a very lucky person, in that regard. Ken ahora, ken ahora ken ahora.
RB: Joe Epstein crosses himself at this point in our conversation
JE: Do you know the joke about the rabbi and the priest who are arguing about the various religions on the airplane?
RB: Which one?
JE: Yes. And it starts to go down. And the plane goes into a dive. Everyone is completely panicked. And the rabbi appears to cross himself. And the priest goes, “Ah rabbi I see when it comes to crunch time, you cross yourself.” “Cross myself?” I was checking, spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch.
RB: [both laugh] You have a book coming this fall, Envy, coming from Oxford University Press, part of a series from some eminent minds, along with your own. What’s next after that?
JE: I’m working on two different books. One is a book on friendship. Which is a very rich and complicated subject as you might imagine. No one has really ever defined what a friend is. Most of the literature on it, Aristotle and Montaigne, Plato is all about the ideal. We know the ideal isn’t where the action is. Early in the book I say D’Artagnon and the Three Musketeers, “All for one and one for all.” In reality Pathos would say to Aramis, “You know I think D’Artagnon has bad breath.” [laughs] and D’Artagnon would say to Pathos, “I think Aramis is a little gay, a little light in the loafers.” So that’s going to be a substantial book of about 350 or 400 pages, I hope.
RB: How do you write it? What are the sources you might use?
JE: [Affects a southern drawl] “I put my ass in the chair, Howard.” What I do is I take what literature exists that seems useful and then I reflect my own experience against it. For example, Montaigne had this friendship Ettiene La Bouchet and he makes it sound if they were one.
RB: Has anyone told you that Jews don’t speak French?
JE: That was Yiddish. By the way, the secret of speaking French is confidence. Whether you are right or wrong, you don’t hesitate. Ettiene La Bouchet, you schmuck.
RB: Like Sid Caesar.
JE: A friend of mine used—this is West Rogers Park stuff—Schmuckowitz, he calls people. “Hey Schmuckowitz!” These are the guys I grew up with [laughs].
RB: We were talking about the friendship book.
JE: So I take literature that’s there and I test it against reality which is often my own. I had a friend very dear to me. He was older than I. He’s dead. But the fact is there were nuisance aspects to the friendship. He had certain kinds of things…and I am sure he found them in me. And there are calibrations of friendships. I have a couple of friends that I would like to send a card to, “We have been friends for so long. Isn’t it time we stopped. You’ve become this boring dreary person and I hope I am not like you.” [laughs]
RB: Would you use movies as source material?
JE: I am a kitchen sink man. If anything applies, I use it. I am struggling with a definition. What do friends mean in the 21st century?
RB: So your starting point is not that you have the definition but are looking?
JE: Exactly. Almost all writing is that for me, an act of discovery. If I really know what I want to say it’s usually crappy.
RB: And the other book?
JE: The other book is a 40,000 word book in a series of biographies this one on Alexis De Toqueville so these two things will keep me off the streets for a while. I upbraided an old academic that I didn’t know in the American Scholar, “You wrote a 1300 hundred page book about James Thurber. Thurber would never read it.” I mentioned how outlandish this was. And he wrote back saying I didn’t understand, “It was a life and times.” My mother would have some wonderful thing to say, “Gegen whatever,” There are some books, like the McCullogh Truman book, that in a perfect world I would read. But probably not in this life. Will there be reading in the next life? Have you been able to find out from any of your previous interviewees?
RB: It hasn’t come up? But who knows. I’m not planning on dying, so I will be continuing to read.
JE: You are very clever. You are one clever mother humper.
RB: So two books on the horizon. Is that about it?
JE: I hope ideas for stories will continue to come to me. I have published about thirty stories. If I could get off the Earth with about fifty, it wouldn’t be so bad.
RB: What have you read lately?
JE: I read a novel that disappointed me a lot, Any Human Heart. Very easy to read but not interesting enough. I’ve been reading a lot of French history, which I don’t know.
RB: Were you paid to write that piece for the Wall Street Journal, essentially touting your own books?
JE: With writers nothing is wasted. I was asked by a sweet young girl who I have never met, named Colleen Levy. This the way Jews name their children now, Kelly Ginsburg.
RB: So if you had written a novel what would you have called it?
JE: … [laughs] The kind of novel I am a sucker for and I do not have it in me to write is the family chronicle. I just read Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March. It’s about a peasant soldier who saves the life of Franz Joseph and his family is ennobled for this act and then it chronicles three generations of his family.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing