Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Leslie Epstein’s magic.
Leslie Epstein has always been a master of uproar in fiction. His early story “The Steinway Quintet” (1976) opens in the Steinway Restaurant, a Jewish eatery on New York’s Lower East Side, as a couple of armed Puerto Rican thugs invade the place (the quintet’s immigrant pianist Leib Goldkorn, the narrator of the story, pegs them for Sephardim). They wreak increasing havoc, first breaking the deaf viola player’s instrument when he refuses to stop playing:
‘Er hat gebrochen de strunes fin mein fiedl!’
Murmelstein stood up. ‘That ain’t right, what you done. He doesn’t hear.’
‘Er hat gebrochen mein boigenhaar!’
‘I am the Quintet leader,’ Salpeter said. ‘What is it you want? Why have you done this? Never has such a thing happened before! Do you know what Goethe said about music?’
‘And W.H. Longfellow?’ added the Bechstein artist.
Worse happens, until at last the noise rouses the owner of the Steinway Restaurant, V.V. Stutchkoff, from his basement lair:
It was a kind of snorting, snorting through the nose, and crashing against things, and the thud and bang of heavy feet from stair to stair. Everyone became motionless. There was the sound of whistling breath, a boom, a further snort, and then the rounded dome, followed by the fierce red face, of V.V. Stutchkoff appeared on the stairs.
‘What the fuck is going on here?’
The criminals shoot at Stutchkoff but can’t bring him down. Then:
Stutchkoff took two or three steps, and halted. His mouth fell. His hands went to his chest. He stood there a time, like a basso singing an aria; then his red face went white, and he hauled himself about in the other direction and lurched toward the front of the room.
‘Hilda! Hilda!’ he shouted.
His wife ran from behind the cash register counter. She had a red mouth painted over her lips, and wore a fox fur because of the cold.
‘Vivian!’ she cried. ‘Vivian!’
‘Hilda!’ said her husband, and sought to take her in his arms. But he staggered, he missed her, he clutched only the air as he fell slowly and ponderously, the way a great tree falls, to the earth.
The story proceeds for many pages in a variety of rhythms, in Goldkorn’s English—not the Jewish standup comedian’s clichés, but a delicate and exact and somehow polite language (“The gun went off and a bullet emerged”) that is one of Epstein’s most winning creations, a language capable of both pathos and bathos, sometimes both in a single sentence. Finally, the Puerto Ricans, now in talks with a team of hostage negotiators, force all the restaurant patrons to strip and descend into the basement. One of the waiters, however, has snatched the key to the back door from the body of fallen Stutchkoff (on the pretense of embracing the corpse of his beloved boss) and the huddled naked Jews escape into the snow even as the criminals are taken up into an improbable helicopter for a promised escape of their own.
Besides the uproar simple, Epstein is a master of the uproar complex—the collision between organized human activity and an unstoppable impulse to chaos. He stages parades, marches, strikes, theatrical performances, concerts, banquets, and then explodes them by introducing opposing forces, error, malignance, history. Not long after “The Steinway Quintet” came Epstein’s King of the Jews (1978), which not only contained an array of uproars but was itself one: a ghastly, hilarious, magical, shocking story of the Holocaust, in which the real experiences and people of the Lodz ghetto in Poland are reimagined, as though conceived by a Yiddish writer we’ve never heard of but whose voice—in a wild, comic, brilliant, translatorese—we seem almost to recognize. The central figure, I.C. Trumpelman, is derived from the actual Chaim Rumkowski who ruled the Lodz ghetto for the Nazis, organizing labor, enforcing Nazi rules, and finally overseeing the transports to the death camps. Whatever the final effect of his rule, and whether or not it saved lives—an endless argument—Rumkowski remains an incomprehensible monster; Epstein’s Trumpelman is both more and less than a monster, comprehensible and yet irreducible, in the way of great fictional creations.
The book’s first great balagan takes place in the Astoria Café in the Jewish quarter of an unnamed Polish city, where the Jewish Community Council often meets. The Germans (never called by that name, only the Others, the Conqueror, the Occupying Power) have recently taken over Poland. Franz Xavier Wohltat, a local magnate who speaks of “my friends of the Mosaic fraternity,” has brought some news, along with the new gauleiter and a troop of Death’s-headers (SS is also never spoken in the book). The Council is ordered to disband and choose new leaders immmediately. Left alone, the Jews begin to argue, prophesy, joke, rage, shrug, deal. People climb on chairs and orate. There’s no way to reconcile the various demands and warnings. They attempt to leave, but the back door of the restaurant has been locked. At last they decide to allow a number of the richer men to buy places on the new Council. These go out to present themselves to the Others, but when I.C. Trumpelman, who has been tricked into sitting out the election, rushes out late to claim his place, he finds that the Council members have been forced to strip naked and play humiliating games in the snow as the laughing Totenkopfers look on with pistols. Soon they have all been shot. Only Trumpelman has escaped.
The two restaurants, each with its absurdly patient waiters and locked back door; the criminals’ demands; the naked Jews in the snow—I don’t know if I would have connected these two obviously connected scenes if I had not read them in quick succession recently. Adding to the dreamlike echoing is that several of the Steinway Restaurant habitués and employees—Mosk the waiter, Miss Bibelnieks the cigarette girl, Goldkorn himself—appear, at least as names, in King of the Jews. Leib Goldkorn is a boy in Poland, rather than a Viennese émigré who became a U.S. citizen in 1943; Mosk is the rich mill-owner. Epstein is a collector of Ashkenazi Jewish names in all their richness—Murmelstein, Salpeter, Szpilfogel—and surely there are enough of those to distribute between two stories; the recurrences suggest that Epstein—who has said he cannot imagine writing a novel that does not somehow reflect the Jewish experience in the twentieth century—wants to hint that his cast of characters and his list of colliding events—tragic, horrendous, ridiculous—are one long-running show taking place in his imagination, outside the limits of time and geography.
* * *
Epstein’s newest novel, The Eighth Wonder of the World (2006), a smorgasbord of uproars set largely in Mussolini’s Rome, received one of the most insulting and dismissive notices I have ever seen given to an established author of serious fiction (I use the term in the sense of “serious music” as distinguished from pop, while admitting how unsatisfactory it is). The critic was Richard Lourie, writing in the New York Times Book Review. Lourie begins by recalling a London restaurant review that characterized a certain restaurant as “a cacaphonous barn,” which was enough for the noise-averse Lourie, killing his interest in the place and whatever else the reviewer might have had to say about it. “I wish,” he writes, “to render the reader of this review a similar time-saving favor.”
The killer quality of Epstein’s book, in Lourie’s view, is one character’s habit of incessantly making bad and mostly offensive puns, in all company, even on Mussolini’s name to Mussolini’s face (“Muscle-weenie”). Lourie offered a selection of these in hopes of permitting disgusted readers to go no further with book or review. To be fair, Lourie did then describe the book in brief detail and pay a few small compliments to Epstein’s gift for language, but asserted that at bottom Epstein’s “stupefyingly unfunny attempt at comedy” dismantles the book, returning it into mere words on the page.
There is no doubt at all that The Eighth Wonder of the World is mere words on the page. It deals, after all, with the attempt by an American expatriate architect, under the sponsorship of Mussolini, to build the tallest building in the world—a building a mile high, in fact, on the site of the ancient Circus Maximus in Rome. It will contain, at the very top, the tomb of Mussolini. Or perhaps the new radio death-ray invention of Marconi, by which Rome will once again conquer the world. Or both. The building, to be called La Vittoria, actually rises to the ninety-sixth floor as the book goes on, within feet of becoming the world’s tallest building (with hundreds of floors to go thereafter). No, no such building was ever built, planned, or proposed in the world we live in.
The architect of this Babel tower is Amos Prince. (He’s the one whose language is a stream of puns.) Prince is a frank composite, part Ezra Pound (like Pound, he makes radio broadcasts for Mussolini denouncing world Jewry and the Americans), and part Frank Lloyd Wright (Wright also conceived a mile-high building and lost loved ones in a fire). Prince’s plan for the skyscraper involves blasting a huge crater with bombs and laying a gigantic keel deep in the earth. With that as a base, a narrow tower will arise, onto which the ascending floors, built as separate units, will be lowered into place by dirigible. Open spaces between the floors will relieve the wind pressure that would otherwise bring it down.
Rising, stopping, re-arising, failing, rusting away, resurrected, disassembled, La Vittoria ought to be a powerful metonymy for the fates of the characters and the nations surrounding it, but it’s really not. It is not like similar buildings in fiction, cannot in its flimsy cartoonish non-existence carry anything like the heavy symbolic weight of Howard Roark’s skyscraper in The Fountainhead or the cathedral in Ibsen’s The Master Builder. It seems as weightless as the airships that are to assemble it. That it has a surprising provenance in the actual history of engineering and architecture only adds to its evanescence, and Epstein is careful to make sure we notice that provenance. The endpapers of the hardback edition show a crude sketch of Amos Prince’s conception, one that he might have himself tossed off while pondering his masterpiece: bomb crater, dirigibles, guy-wires. But these are not his: they are actual sketches of an actual project for a vast skyscraper, the work of the visionary engineer Buckminster Fuller. Epstein, in his afterword list of the characters of the book, real, imagined, and tutelary, tells us so.
Besides the uproar simple, Epstein is a master of the uproar complex—the collision between organized human activity and an unstoppable impulse to chaos.
To Lourie, a central failure of the book is that Amos Prince is nobody at all, only a congeries of tics—his puns, his anti-Semitism, his white suits, his outsize ambitions: paper-thin. In fact he is a more interesting creation than that, or rather his thinness is more interesting than it seems at first. It is not only that his genius is taken from Fuller; his ceaseless crude punning is not his own either. What Lourie considers unfunny attempts at comedy are adapted from the same tendency in Ezra Pound, and in Pound it isn’t funny, it is grinding and hateful and dirtying, as it is in Prince. Here is Prince: “I have a message that will end the World Whore. Old Hot-leer, old Ass-in-shower, they’ll throw down their arms . . . . We need to be friends. All men—the Two-tons, the Talons, the Anguish, our own dear Marrowcans . . .” Pound in his letters talks of the “SINN-emma,” “the Leg of Nations,” “the first year after the jew-bull-ee”; Roosevelt is “Roosenbelly” or “jewzfeld”; he talks about “the dummycats,” “the angry-saxons,” “the Stars and Swipes,” “the Fattycan.” And that is all randomly picked from a few pages of “I Cease Not to Yowl”: Ezra Pound’s Letters to Olivia Rossetti Agresti.
It would seem that any fictional creation constructed as Epstein has constructed Prince must have been constructed that way for a purpose, a fictional purpose, and the only reason a reader would not care to ponder that purpose is if the book is a bore. And it isn’t: Amos Prince looms over the book’s incessant wild action like one of those huge puppets that Julie Taymor or Ralph Lee build of scraps and rags and appropriated things. Opposite him, just as huge and unreal, is Epstein’s Mussolini (who gave Lourie almost as much trouble as those puns). Shrinking and swelling like a Looney Tunes predator, this Mussolini orates in CAPITAL LETTERS, speaks English with a Chico Marx accent (“What about we gonna have war? Eh? The Duce, he notta saying”), and in full flood grows so huge that the buttons actually pop from his tunic—and yet he remains always something more than ludicrous: leaden and fearsome. He evokes a panoramic painting by Peter Blume called “Eternal City” that used to hang on the first floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York: an exact and illusionistic depiction of Roman scenes against a landscape of absurdly steep hills, and in the foreground a huge jack-in-the-box projecting Mussolini’s staring head, green and red, like a Javanese devil-doll.
Epstein’s Mussolini pops out first in one of the most astonishing set pieces I can remember in recent fiction, a tour de force of narrative management that is a continual surprise not only for what happens but for the chutzpah of the enterprise.
It is the day of a great trionfo. The Ethiopians have surrendered to the Italian forces in one of the most disgraceful of all imperialist adventures, redeemed only by how short-lived it was. Max Shabilian, devoted assistant of Amos Prince, is the observer. After being swept along helplessly by the vast crowds, Max manages to get into the Coliseum past the sole guard at an entrance (“Asleep! Asleep on his feet like a horse!”) and finds himself the only person inside. He climbs to a high window in the wall and loooks out:
Far to the south, at the staging area, the dust was still pumping upward; it spread dark and lowering over the city’s marble monuments and over the billowing white banners that moved up the avenue. To Max it seemed as if the brown earth and the cloud-filled sky had exchanged places. Was everything topsy-turvy? There, on the ground, were bombers and fighters—the three-engined Capronis and Savoia-Marchettis of the Regia Aeronautica—that belonged in the air. Behind them, and no less disconcerting, was a whole forest of palms and pepper trees that moved like a scene from Macbeth up the Via dei Trionfi, followed by a field of uprooted ferns and mosses that was waved about by—this time the chorus could have been from Aida—girls in halters and fluted sheaths. Here was a further anomaly: squads of black-skinned Africans, each man with a rifle and sword and wearing, instead of the rags of the defeated, the lion’s mane of the victor.
These are the African allies of Mussolini; the Ethiopians follow, in chains like Roman captives. Two airplanes roar over, the crowd goes wild, “flinging their arms into the air, as if they wanted to touch the two flashing silvery craft. Then they bellowed like animals: L’Etiopia è nostra!”
Mussolini orders Marconi, “a small man in a bowler hat,” to make radio contact with the fliers, who are in fact the Duce’s own sons. He speaks to them, his amplified voice filling the city. “THE WHOLE WORLD WILL HEAR THE THOUGHTS OF IL DUCE AS HE SPEAKS TO THESE BIRDS OF THE AIR. YOU, PILOTS! YOU HAVE WON THE GREATEST COLONIAL WAR IN ALL OF HISTORY. THE EAGLE OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE HAS ONCE MORE SPREAD ITS WINGS OVER AFRICA,” and on and on. “Men and women surged forward. Some had children on their shoulders. They lifted them skyward as if they meant to dip them into the stream of transmitted words that moved invisibly through the air.”
The Jews of Rome come forth in their contingents. They halt before the triumphal Arch of Titus, through which the parade is passing. They won’t go through! This is the arch that the Emperor Domitian built to honor his brother Titus’s victory over the Jews, the destruction of the Temple. The Jews of Rome never pass under it. But they must! “At that a wail went up. A ripple, then a wave, went through the march as it backed up on itself. Hundreds of women were rushing back to the platform, their left hands raised in the air.” They are showing the Duce that they have given their gold rings to the State for the war. We are married to you! You have our rings! We love you like a husband! Our rings! Our sons! But though the Duce is moved, he insists: they must pass under the arch. “‘Walk under the arch. It is nothing; a matter of ten steps. I will be with you. The Duce accompanies you, his hand is in your hands. Come, let us go.’ No animal trainer could have tamed his beasts with more skill.”
Brief quotation, though, cannot recreate the brilliant stage managing of this account, flowing at once seamlessly and chaotically up to the climactic mock hanging of Haile Selassie himself, staged as a little joke by the Duce. I have not gone into the records to see how it matches the event it portrays, but what it certainly does reproduce with great faithfulness is the spirit in which it was projected, all the gratuitous energy and absurd overheated terribiltá of Futurism, the planes and banners and guns and explosive crowds.
That such a reproduction is a cartoon distortion of actual fascismo and a lie about the past is certainly deliberate, even cunning. In a “historic dumb show” at the Arch of Titus, the Jews attempt to walk under the arch in obedience to the Duce, but are repelled “as if a sheet of glass or some other invisible barrier had been stretched across the opening.” At last the Rabbi of Trieste carries the Ark through the arch, invoking God’s blessing on Benito Mussolini. “There was a pause,” Epstein states. Then, “A girl, she had the wild black hair of a Gypsy, ran after him. Then the community followed, disappearing beneath the stones.” The double meaning in that last clause is certainly proleptic, and the “Gypsy girl” will appear much later in the story: she is a real historical figure in the lives and deaths of the Jews of Rome, the story that Leslie Epstein is trying at once to accept and to defeat. This small clue to his enterprise and his method will go unnoticed by 99 percent of his readers, who will have forgotten the moment by the time it becomes important, and will not read the book twice to find it: but that is the pathos of the novelist’s life.
* * *
Certain literary careers begin or at least take off with a big world-busting bang, most of the following books retaining the flavor and the devices and the mythos of that first explosion. Pynchon’s V is a novel like that, his subsequent books seeming to be variants or expansions (or collapses). King of the Jews established a number of modes and character types who reappear from book to book. There is, as noted, the panoply of disrupted, deflected, and colliding public events or performances. There is the outsize egotist/visionary/demigod, avatars of one aspect or another of I.C. Trumpelman: the aspiration to universal redemption or triumph, a mixture of heartfelt love for humanity and narcissistic cruelty, swelling fantasies that win over everyone for a time. Artists and impresarios partake of this mix, like Epstein’s Rudolf von Beckmann in Pandaemonium (1997), whose world-beating staging of Antigone in the cathedral square of Salzburg just as the Anschluss gets under way is disrupted by the sudden scene-spoiling appearance of Hitler himself. In The Eighth Wonder of the World, Amos Prince and Mussolini share the faker/genius role, like Gog and Magog.
There is a fascination with huge engineering undertakings. Details of the construction of La Vittoria take up many pages in The Eighth Wonder of the World. In his wonderful 1990 Wild West tall tale Pinto and Sons, it is a mile-deep gold mine, a reverse La Vittoria, driven into the lava-hot regions of a newly-exploited California, where the Modoc Indians slave like Jews in others of Epstein’s stories. In heroic experiments conducted in the mine, an irrepressibly optimistic Hungarian Jew, A. Pinto (Epstein apparently finds that first-letter identifier common in Eastern European writing hilarious, as do I), discovers the vaccine for rabies—only to find that Pasteur has already done it.
There is the re-imagined historical milieu. This is not exactly that “alternative history” popular in genre fiction, which reaches the mainstream now and then, as in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Neither is Epstein’s the Herman Wouk/Winds of War strategy—whose origin was probably Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series—where the novelist’s invented Witness to History shows up at every important crux, runs into every key historical figure, but affects nothing. Epstein’s inventions and additions to the historical record are often blatant, and would have been obvious to observers at the time, but they actually seem merely to intensify the inexorability of what we know did happen.
Epstein’s attempt to reduce Mussolini and Fascism to words on a page is in fact an ongoing, uncompletable enterprise of speaking lies to power, an enterprise in which failure is necessary to success.
One other: each of Epstein’s giant dreamers has his shadow, like Lear’s Fool, often one damaged or hurt or limited in some way, able to see into the impostures and vanities and delusions of his master, but unable to abandon him. In Pandaemonium it is the drug-addled and nihilistic Peter Lorre, who narrates much of the book, bound helplessly to the tyrannical genius Rudi von Beckmann; in King of the Jews it is the fragile orphan Nisel Lipiczany, whose life was saved by Trumpelman; in The Eighth Wonder of the World it is the Jewish novice architect Max Shabilian, endlessly trying to bring Amos Prince’s dreams into reality.
And, connecting or underlying much of this, the fate of European Jewry in the twentieth century. As in a silent comedy, where total slapstick catastrophe keeps threatening—the ladder, the paint bucket, the line of wash, the piano, the sidecar—but is staved off for one more, two more seconds through ridiculous happenstance, Epstein alters the course of events in unlikely ways, as though trying to hit upon the one crazy enough to work, though it doesn’t and can’t. Max Shabilian strives mightily and ceaselessly to save the Jews of Italy and of Europe by convincing various powers, including the Pope, to bring them all to Rome and put them to work building La Vittoria, but the more he succeeds in putting this absurd ahistorical obstacle in the way of their fate, the closer the reality of the transports and the liquidations comes.
The most affecting element of Epstein’s accounts is the Jews’ incapacity to imagine the full extent of the disaster that has come upon them, the inhuman force of it. In King of the Jews and The Eighth Wonder of the World, reasonable-seeming but in fact hopeless shifts by which they might escape are offered, and the people greet them with enthusiasm and gratitude—the mad bullshit of I.C. Trumpelman, Max Shabilian’s collapsing plans. Both men are hailed as Moses, Messiah. I am reminded of Ambrose Bierce’s little Aesopian fable called “Philosophers Three”:
A Bear, a Fox, and an Opossum were attacked by an inundation.
“Death loves a coward,” said the Bear, and went forward to fight the flood.
“What a fool!” said the Fox. “I know a trick worth two of that.” And he slipped into a hollow stump.
“There are malevolent forces,” said the Opossum, “which the wise will neither confront nor avoid. The thing is to know the nature of your antagonist.”
So saying the Opossum lay down and pretended to be dead.
In the end of The Eighth Wonder of the World, all the devices of comic reversal and uproar, the improbable coincidences, the rapid improvisations of B-movie plotting, somehow rise to a slow sad music; Max Shabilian’s crossing and recrossing of the city to get the Jews he has brought to Rome out of the Nazi trap, failing again and again, become moving, and more moving because you thought you could not be touched by a story managed as this one is. The Lilith-like woman Max thought was a Gypsy appears frequently now, and it is clear who she is: a Jewish agent of the Germans, intersecting Max’s path because she is identifying for the SS every Jewish household of Rome. She is in fact Celeste di Porto, later known as La Pantera, a real person, and she betrays Max, too, to the Germans.
* * *
At the time that King of the Jews appeared, a body of opinion had gathered that the Holocaust, as it had come to be called, could not be written about. Theodor Adorno famously stated that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism, though he later modified that: suffering has as much right to be expressed, he allowed, as the tortured have a right to scream—which if anything seems even more abashing. Elie Wiesel, in a 1977 essay entitled “The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration,” claimed that in fact there can be no such thing as a literature of the Holocaust. In this account, even if there could or should be writing about the Holocaust, Epstein’s kind is not it: in a Commentary review of King of the Jews on its appearance, Ruth R. Wisse classed the book with what she calls “American war farces,” which would include M*A*S*H. “True evil seems not a suitable subject for this genre.” In her view the book deals seriously with none of the issues it raises, and reduces the complexity of Jewish life and culture in the midst of Europe to a “hollow metaphysical joke.” The subject Epstein chose “surely demands either the courage of mature exposition or dignified suppression.”
Dignified suppression is not Epstein’s game, which is not to say that the game he is playing is not played for keeps. In a contribution of his own to a collection called Writing and the Holocaust, he makes this point about language and its powers and its fragility:
If to some degree civilization began when a man settled for screaming at his enemy instead of stoning him to death, then the task for the Third Reich was to turn words back into rocks; that is to say, to drain them of their imagistic and metaphoric properties.
If this is so, then Epstein is intent on turning those rocks back into words. Wiesel and Adorno say that since words, language, fiction, poetry, cannot contain or fully express the horrors of the Holocaust, then their usefulness is to that extent evacuated forever. This is to miss something very important. Language, fiction, cannot contain, possess, transmit, or even entirely limn, any actuality; it cannot satisfy, as the solution to an equation is said to do. To suppose that it aims to do so, critic John Bayley has written, “implies some misunderstanding of poetic tradition: the language of poetry has never claimed to convey the nature of such horrors but more simply its power to transform them: paradoxically a more modest task.”
The criticism of Epstein’s ghastly comedy in King of the Jews (and the same could be brought against The Eighth Wonder of the World and parts of Pandaemonium as well) is that in them the aspiration to encompass results is nothing more than a magic trick, a sleight of hand. Nothing has been really changed, only fooled with, shifted from sleeve to palm. But this is, at bottom, the modest task of fiction. It is all just words, as its most skilled deployers know all the time and readers often wilfully forget. The sticks and stones of the powerful and the brutal can do harm, but we are right to assert that words—fictions—can never hurt us. Nor can they help, at least not as we are tempted to think they might, as Wisse thinks they should be able to do, if managed correctly. All fiction, all poetry, can only transform, momentarily, before our eyes, and only until the world outside literature reasserts itself again. Nothing has changed, but our spirits have been washed, and we do not forget. It is the kind of trick whose failure at actual magic is subsumed in its success as apparent magic.
The Israeli psychic Uri Geller used to claim he could bend spoons by mental force, and it was thrilling to many to believe him. The American stage magician who calls himself The Amazing Randi bent spoons too, but as a direct challenge to Geller he let us know it was a trick. We were not to know how the trick was done, but we knew it was one, and, to some, that was the greater thrill. The great writers of the realist tradition go to powerful lengths, building delicate mosaics of detail with passionate verisimiltude, to conceal that their tricks are tricks: to cause us to “suspend our disbelief” and respond to the griefs and rages, the families and people, the wars and rumors of war, as though they were actual. This is what Richard Lourie felt that Epstein failed to acheive, or deliberately sabotaged, in The Eighth Wonder of the World, so that all that remained was words on a page. But Epstein’s attempt to reduce Mussolini and what Epstein calls the “malignant merriment” of Fascism once again to words on a page is in fact an ongoing, uncompletable enterprise of speaking lies to power, an enterprise in which failure is necessary to success. This lets him off no hook—no writer of ambitious fiction should or could be, nor would he want to be, let off the hook. And often enough failure is just failure; Epstein cannot be said to succeed everywhere at everything. But in my opinion Leslie Epstein’s adventures in Jewish history reveal him as one of the true Amazing Randis of our contemporary literature.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.