One of the most exuberant and underappreciated voices of American fiction is back. It belongs to Leib Goldkorn, an impoverished 94-year-old flautist who, in 1997, shares a tiny apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his wife, "the former Clara Litwak," who, when not snoozing between insulin shots, hankers for Campbell’s soup and Slim Jims.
This is quite a comedown for a man who sees himself as a product of the inter-war German-speaking world, in which Jews like Goldkorn thought themselves part of a superior, highly cultured bourgeoisie. Leib frequently notes that he is a graduate of the Akadamie für Musik, and that, at the age of fourteen, he finished first in a woodwinds competition. He is a man for whom credentials matter, for whom the notion of a civilized world means everything.
Leib is also a man of persistent–and persistently unrequited–desire, both erotic and aesthetic. In these three new novellas, his love for a series of women, from toothless Clara to three Hollywood starlets, is met with, at best, indifference and, at worst, betrayal. As Leib recalls his past, we see that his artistic ambition, which is nothing less than to save the world through the power of music, is likewise thwarted. His flute-playing, in fact, is so bad that it not only enrages the sensibilities of Arturo Toscanini but also drives a bear to run deep into the woods with its forelimbs pressed to its ears. Yet Leib perseveres in love and art, making his manic way from Hitler’s Europe through the Golden Age of Hollywood to his shriveled present.
Leib’s creator, too, is one of the underappreciated voices in American fiction. Epstein’s 1979 novel, King of the Jews, won ample acclaim, but it also drew criticism for the way he employed broad comedy in writing about the Holocaust. Leib Goldkorn first appeared in 1976, in a novella called "The Steinway Quintet," and he reappeared in 1985, in Goldkorn Tales, which included an expanded version of "The Steinway Quintet" plus two other novellas. These three new Gold-korn tales, like most of Epstein’s work, are written in an antic voice that is well-suited to his true subject, which is grandiosity. Epstein is a master at creating characters intoxicated by the idea that they can invent themselves and their world. Perhaps this should come as no surprise from an author who grew up in Hollywood, where his father, Philip, and his uncle, Julius, were the twin-brother screenwriting team responsible for Casablanca and other films. Epstein is fascinated by spectacle and extravagance, and Ice Fire Water is nothing if not extravagant in the number of themes it tackles. It’s about Jews, Hollywood, Hitler, art, guilt, desire, and the ravages of old age.
"Ice," the first of the three linked novellas, opens on a freezing November morning as Leib sits on the toilet he uneasily shares with his neighbors:
Heavens! There is a frozen film upon the water of the johnny! Overhead, the tank for water has frozen into a solid cube of ice. Not even Scott, not Admiral Peary, would in such conditions have dropped their pantaloons. Time now for the first of my birthday treats, permitted on an annual basis by Dr. Goloshes. TWA bottle of potato vodka. Salud, Akademie Graduate Goldkorn! Ninety-four years young. Ah, in my throat such a burning, like the man in the Roumanian Circus who swallows fire.
Have we reached the moment for the second treat? No, no, a treatment, prescribed, like the schnapps, as a tonic for the system. Here it is, the happy holiday issue, behind the clouded cellophane. How was I to obtain it? This was the thought I faced upon waking this morning at dawn.
And so we begin with a 94-year-old man who is determined to "achieve on doctor’s orders an evacuation" with the holiday issue of Hustler in one hand. The difficulties one might expect a man of Leib’s advanced years to experience in this effort are compounded by the fact that, whenever his efforts are on the verge of paying off, his past comes roaring into his consciousness, often with the effect of a cold shower. Each of the three novellas is driven by memories Leib has while striving, unsuccessfully, for that "evacuation." In "Ice," while masturbating to a picture of an aging dominatrix named Crystal Knight (Leib’s birthday is November 9, the anniversary of the Kristallnacht), Leib recalls his 1938 flight from Europe to America and his brief dalliance with Sonja Henie on a film set. In "Fire," he is in a phone booth on a subway platform, having phone sex (interrupted by frequent trips to the newsstand for more change) with Crystal. This tele-tryst is juxtaposed with Leib’s narrative of his 1941 flirtation with Carmen Miranda aboard a ship headed for Brazil, where Leib intends to convince the Brazilian president not to tilt toward the Axis powers. In "Water," as Leib actually makes his way in the flesh to Crystal, he recalls how Esther Williams once saved his life and how he, Leib, failed to prevent the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Throughout all these wartime misadventures, Leib carries with him the score ofEsther: A Jewish Girl in the Persian Court, his unfinished opera about the Purim story, which he longs to present to the world and thereby, through the magic of art, rally the forces of justice against Hitler. Leib thinks his opera is an epic, and he is utterly confident that art has redemptive and mobilizing power. In fact, his music is dreck and his libretto is doggerel worthy of Mel Brooks:
The ills of the Jews will continue to fester
Trust me to end them, or my name isn’t Esther.
Unlike his characters, Epstein is not fooled by himself. He values and clearly shares the desire for redemptive art but is fully aware that the human imagination is as likely to lead to self-delusion as to redemption. There’s a running gag throughout the book about the relationship between art, redemption, and judgment. Leib doesn’t speak much about God, but he is obsessed with New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, whom he believes is a Finn. Leib’s apartment is crammed floor-to-ceiling with unsold copies of his memoirs, which are called Goldkorn Tales and which the fictional Kakutani favorably reviewed. Hoping for a rendezvous, Leib writes to the critic:
The day may come when, reaching about the torso, I might instruct you upon the fingering of the flute. Is it not the case that in the Finnish sauna cold water is thrown upon the red hot rocks? And that the saunists are beaten on the back and the loin sector with twigs of thorns? Perhaps you could make upon my own shoulders–these are hirsute, like the woolly ancestors of friend Dumbo that are sometimes discovered beneath the Finlandic ice–a demonstration. Yes, you can beat me! Beat me! I will not cry out. I will not beg for mercy.
Leib’s masochistic fantasies have a dark side that emerges when the comedy of an old man having phone sex turns abruptly, and with staggering chutzpah, to tragedy as Leib’s S&M dirty talk with Crystal morphs into an illumination of survivor’s guilt. While urging the dominatrix to beat him, Leib calls out the names of his sisters and parents, who all perished in Dachau. This is, to say the least, a gutsy move. It’s tasteless and disturbing. It’s also funny. Epstein pulls it off because he never asks his readers to suspend disbelief, because not once in nearly three hundred pages does he succumb to the temptations of realism.
Toward the end of the book, in another commingling of tragedy and farce, Epstein batters Leib with a whirlwind combination of punches. The good news is that Leib is about to achieve his "evacuation" with the real, flesh-and-blood Crystal; the bad news is that Crystal turns out to be the daughter he thought had died at birth. The better news is that his daughter is alive; the worse news is that she turns out not to be his daughter because–the worst news of all–he was never the child’s father. But in the brief period before he learns he was cuckolded some fifty years ago, Leib finds in the woman he believes to be his daughter a promise of happiness. To Crystal he says:
No. No return. You shall live with me five stories in elevation. High above the hoi polloi. We shall look down, my child, from this aerie at the comings and goings of men and women–their graspings, their busyness, their hot pursuits. Oh, the baubles! The toys! Their poor lives of flesh. I shall on occasion open a Campbell’s. Not only that: as we laugh at foibles or discuss one with the other the works of let us say Victor Hugo, we can partake of a chicken pot pie.
The way this passage mixes the elevated and the tawdry, Victor Hugo and a chicken pot pie, says everything that need be said about Ice Fire Water and its narrator. Dirty old man, hopeless romantic, musical mediocrity, guilty survivor: Leib Goldkorn is above all a humanist.
So is Epstein, but he writes much better than Leib plays the flute. Ice Fire Wateris funny, sad, juvenile, wise, coarse, and erudite. And it would fall flat–as flat as Leib’s flute-playing–were it not for the voice of Leib Goldkorn, which somehow combines a carnival barker’s campy energy with genuine moral urgency and a poignant evocation of human longing. It’s a voice that takes Leib Goldkorn’s 94 years’ worth of unconsummated desire and transforms it into a remarkable triptych about eros and thanatos.
The dominant voice of Judy Budnitz’s If I Told You Once also belongs to a nonagenarian Jew in the new world. But it belongs to a woman whose old country, a far cry from the opera houses of Vienna and Salzburg, is a rural East European shtetl, a small village ringed by forbidding forests and shrouded in superstition and fear. Her name is Ilana and she is the first of four women who narrate Budnitz’s inventive fable.
My family had lived in the same village for as long as anyone could remember. It was a place that lay buried in snow for nine months out of the year followed by three months of mud….
It was a place where someone had forgotten to add the color: low gray clouds, crooked houses of weather-beaten wood, coils of smoke rising up from cookstoves and rubbish heaps. All the wives of the village cut from the same dull cloth to make clothes for the families. We ate gray bread. The men made a fermented liquor so colorless it was invisible, nothing but a raging headache in a jar….
My people were a clutching, clinging people. They had to be. What little they had, someone was always trying to snatch away.
The treatment of history is oblique. The mention of a prayerbook here and adybbuk there tells us that Ilana is Jewish, but Budnitz is not writing a historical novel. The Holocaust, the Second World War, the passage of individuals from the old world to the new: all these historical realities and places are visible in only blurred fashion. Budnitz is working in the idiom of folk tales and fairy tales. Harpies fly through these pages; brothers are born with horns; ladders run up to the clouds; women keep potent potions in jars.
Like any good fabulist, Budnitz is confident, almost brazen, in the way she makes a reader suspend disbelief. This quality won her some praise for her first book, a collection of short stories called Flying Leap,which Newsweekdescribed as "funny, dark, weird, adventurous, slanted, and enchanted" (one wonders if Leib Goldkorn’s Michiko would be caught dead writing such blurbable rhymes). Here Ilana describes three mysterious old women of the village who are the shtetl equivalent of the Greek Fates:
They had the same face, skin delicate with age, soft and threatening to tear like wet paper. The same face three times over, same violet-colored eyes sunk in purple-veined pouches of skin. People said if you watched closely you’d see them blink and breathe in unison. The pulses beating together in their temples.
In their hair insects wove their cocoons and greasy silk tents.
Naturally, Ilana longs to escape from this place filled with clinging people and old women who know the future. She runs away from her village to an unnamed city, meets and falls in love with Shmuel, an itinerant actor, and boards a ship for America.
Up until this point, for roughly the first third of the novel, Budnitz’s story is worthy of Ilana’s voice. It’s exciting and, yes, enchanting. Budnitz delivers some startling images with impressive precision and economy. Some of them, like a man flogging a horse straight out of Crime and Punishment,are borrowed, and some, like a nightmare vision of a dried-out sea bed at the bottom of which lie ships "listing and broken like fallen birds," are all her own. At her best, Budnitz writes with visionary authority. But she squanders that authority. What begins as a story told by one gripping voice is torn apart by centrifugal force as Budnitz breaks the tale up into smaller and smaller segments narrated in four different voices.
In America, in an unnamed city much like New York, Ilana and Shmuel have twin sons and, years later, a daughter called Sashie, whose voice Budnitz adds to Ilana’s. The next narrator to enter the story is Sashie’s daughter, Mara. Finally, there’s Nomie, the daughter of Sashie’s son, Jonathan. All four narrators tell tales in which wonders occur, people die, obsessions fester. Men, for the most part, simply disappear. When World War II (though it’s not called that) breaks out, the twins enlist. Ilana, who has senses beyond the usual five, immediately dons mourner’s black, foreseeing that her sons will perish in battle, which they do. Jonathan runs away. When Ilana and Sashie learn about the wandering eye of Sashie’s husband, they make the arrangements necessary to ensure that he makes a quick exit from the novel. These are fierce women. Their love for one another is fierce, but never warm. Trapped in their tenement and within reach of one another’s voices, their hatred of one another is equally fierce.
Long before Budnitz adds Nomie’s voice to those of the three older women, however, the magic of the novel has dissipated. Despite Budnitz’s muscular imagination and her skillful deployment of multiple mirrorings and parallels in her characters’ lives, If I Told You Once doesn’t really tell us anything because it’s not really about anything beyond its own telling. It feints in the direction of several themes–the tortuous love between mothers and daughters, the way storytelling tells us who we are, the need to break free of the past while not forgetting it–but never truly explores them. These women don’t tell us a story so much as they assert, with the hectoring insistence implied in the title, that certain fantastic, macabre, and magical things have occurred.
Near the end of the book, Ilana sees the three Fate-like women from the old country on the streets of her new-world city, closing in on her, ready to clip the final thread. Nomie looks around her and sees a recapitulation of the Fates in Ilana, Sashie, and Mara. In the end, it’s hard for a reader not to see the three Fates in Budnitz’s four narrators as they tell versions of the same story over and over again in voices that blend into indistinguishable, oracular mumbling.