By Elizabeth Floyd Mair
I knew from reading the jacket copy that Shalom Auslander’s debut novel, “Hope: A Tragedy,” would touch on all sorts of taboos. Indeed, it contains many a joke on topics that are usually way off-limits, including Anne Frank, the Holocaust, and Jesus’ last words on the cross. But I had no idea just how intelligent and beautifully written it was also going to be.
“Hope: A Tragedy” takes the point of view of its main character, Solomon Kugel, who is fearful of just about everything but especially afraid of the arsonist who has been burning down farmhouses in Stockton, N.Y. — the town where Kugel and his family have recently bought a farmhouse. The arsonist becomes the least of his worries.
Kugel’s got an old woman living in his attic who turns out to be Anne Frank. She is penniless, unable to touch a cent in royalties from the 32 million copies her book has sold, and has relied for years on the guilty consciences of a succession of German or Jewish homeowners.
To Kugel’s wife, the solution is simple, but not to him. He does not want to be known as the Jewish man who reported Anne Frank to the authorities and threw her out of his attic.
Little by little, his obsession with the old lady in his attic — who’s been working on a novel for 60 years and demands that Kugel keep her supplied with matzoh and borscht and set up a microwave in the attic — begins to threaten his job, his marriage and even his life.
Auslander has previously published a collection of short stories, “Beware of God,” and a memoir on his upbringing in a strict Orthodox Jewish community, titled “Foreskin’s Lament.”
Auslander, 41, lives in Woodstock with his wife and their two young children. On Thursday
Tuesday, he will hold a seminar and give a reading at the University at Albany, as part of the New York State Writers Institute Visiting Writers Series.
He spoke recently about what drove him to research “famous last words” by everyone from Stan Laurel to Malcolm X for the novel, as well as the “Judeo-Mexican standoff” he has come to with God.
Q: How long have you been writing?
A: I left college after about two or three weeks — dropped out and had to get a job. I didn’t want to take any kind of help from my family. I’d always read a lot and the only thing I could think of where I could get a job quickly using some sort of writing was in an ad agency, so I started doing that. And then, over the years, that became journalism and then short stories and a memoir, then a novel.
Q: That’s interesting, because in advertising you have to write really concisely, and every word has to be just right. It’s almost like poetry in a way.
A: Yeah, but lies. It’s lies, but it does have to be concise. There’s good training in … to be honest, mostly in having people (expletive) on what you write.
Q: Do you do a lot of revising?
A: I do, yeah. There’s a lot of trying to find the right voice, or approach, even for this one. I wrote two other full versions first, and all that remained, in both cases, was the first page, where the protagonist goes upstairs, because he’s heard something in the attic. In those versions, it was his mother who’s obsessed with the Holocaust and is always thinking it’s coming and is always hiding.
Q: I was going to ask you if people ever get offended by the idea of your work. I can’t imagine that people who’ve actually read it would, but maybe people who haven’t?
A: Yeah, and that’s something that I’m surprised people are so open about. They’ll tell me, “It’s wrong to say x, y or z,” and I’ll ask, “Have you read the book?” and they’ll say, “No, and I don’t plan on it.”
Q: They actually come out to see you?
A: Yeah. And they’ll have read a review and a small excerpt, but I think the joke is on them, because if you actually read the book, you’ll find out that’s not at all what I’m doing. For one thing, I find that Anne Frank comes off as quite likeable at the end — much more likeable than the innocent, dead girl that I have always known. With the previous book, I actually thought that if it’s an attack on this sort of Tony Soprano-like God, it kind of is redemptive for a non-Tony Soprano-like God. That if God isn’t a thug, then he might like this book, because everyone’s usually walking around down here teaching their children to be afraid of him.
Q: What is your relationship with God and religion like now? Is it a standoff?
A: It’s a Judeo-Mexican standoff. No, I don’t think about it as much anymore. But when things happen — someone getting sick or death — it all comes rushing back, and the challenge is to not let it overwhelm me. But as far as practice or identity, I don’t have any of that.
Elizabeth Floyd Mair is a freelance writer in Guilderland and can be reached at email@example.com.
If you go
What: Shalom Auslander holds an open seminar and reads from his new novel, “Hope: A Tragedy”
When: The seminar is at 4:15 p.m. Thursday. The reading is at 8 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Both events will be held in the Standish Room, Science Library, uptown campus, University at Albany
Info: These events are free and open to the public; call 442-5620 or visit http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.