Nicole Krauss and Jenny Erpenbeck



I met Jenny Urban back in Berlin seven years ago shortly after reading her novel visitation I propose that we have a coffee at the newly opened very fashionable Soho has a central location convenient for both of us full of quiet corners in which to talk but once we were seated on Velveteen chairs under a vast crystal chandelier surrounded by creatives with MacBooks and Playboy's and silk scarves drinking Aperol I imagined how it might look to someone raised in East Berlin and cringe the place was so clearly emblematic of the heedless foreign investment flooding the city at the time and what made it even worse somehow was that the interior design had an artificial patina effect simile a cozy English club style that seemed especially absurd in Berlin where nearly every building told a story about a very real and not so cozy past the building that contained Berlin's Soho House told exactly this kind of story originally built as a department store in the 20s the building's Jewish owners were forced out and it became the headquarters of the Hitler Youth after the war it housed East Germany's communist party seat and then it's archive and now it is the city shining symbol of hollow capitalist glamour urban Beck took it in stride when you're from the east when you've seen your country disappear you understand how quickly things can change she said she looked around the room it's surreal this is not real somehow things change and this will change too but few authors are able to write about those changes those surreal changes like urban Beck does a visitation tells the story of 20th century Germany through the success of inhabitants of a lake house in the countryside near Berlin from the architect who builds the house for his young bride filling it with lovely details like a secret closet and a balcony with a bird woven into its filigree so the homes final owner a young woman who returns to clean the house last time hiding in that secret closet when the real estate agent arrives to show it open Bex sees all of them with both intimacy and a slight remove not unlike the gardener who tends to the property over the years raking leaves and pruning trees with the seasons as maps are rewritten people are displaced a wall is erected and demolished the novel was inspired by a real house that had belonged to urban Beck's family for almost a half-century when they lost the property to the heirs of its wartime owners she'd spent many happy summers there as a girl she told me it's one of the most beautiful houses you can find in Brandenburg she said but as a child I never thought about the luxury in it I sensed that it was a special place and when I came back from Austria years later after my studies and found it slowly falling into decay I had the feeling that it was something living that should be nurtured taken care of like a person for me the house had an emotional value not a financial one the house I understood had given her novel a structure and the novel gave structure to her grief I had the sense that for open-back the past was something living – after we spoke I returned to the apartment on Feb a leaner Strasse I was living in at the time in a building that had been the home of a seamstress and her daughter who were forced into smaller and smaller quarters until they were deported to a death camp in 1941 their names were inscribed in the steel Pristina at the front door and from time to time I would google these two women to read the same grim handful of facts hoping for more and always come away feeling like I was holding the ashes of their story those of you who have spent time in Berlin or in other places in which the past is so painfully present will understand what I mean when I say that I often found it difficult even half after having lived in the city for more than a year to both hold this knowledge of what had come before and go about the mundane tasks of my day and so reading urban Beck with her ability to restore history's human interior felt astonishing how does she do it you won't find unfurling read nazi and urban Beck's work or any trace of a stogie south nostalgia for the former east she understands how easily the past can become kitsch instead we have the knowledge that the staircase creaks at the 2nd 15th and second-to-last steps we know the brutal dispassionate language of legal documents that seal faiths she's both tender and exacting a precision only possible I think with careful research and the force of her imagination at the time we met urban Beck has spent 20 years in each system and she told me that the first 20 weighed more somehow that the place in which we spend our youth are revocable shapes us to live in a wealthy capitalist country meant to be forever outside looking in which is of course an ideal perspective for a writer long after a meeting I kept thinking about the size of that loss a home a way of being and how that outside earnest had given her the ability to see past barriers of all kinds bureaucratic cultural even temporal I'd be hard-pressed to think of an author who better captures life's contingencies the way it might have all gone a little bit differently a theme she explored in her next novel the end of days the story of a woman's life as a series of historical hypotheticals I suspect it has also given her a heightened awareness of the lessons of the past and an empathy that comes from an awareness that we are all in fact historical hypotheticals and that some of us happen to be luckier than others of us in the circumstances of birth when I returned to Berlin in the summer of 2015 hundreds of thousands of migrants were arriving in Germany from Africa and the Middle East friends were organizing clothing drives turning their film production bands into lunch trucks hosting families in their spare rooms even adopting teenagers who had arrived alone there were long discussions over dinner about what the government was and wasn't doing about reactionary violence and about why the US was taking in so few and so it was thrilling to discover that urban Beck's new novel go went gone was about this next set of surreal changes and that it seemed to capture them as they were unfolding the abstraction of anonymous numbers and facts coming once again to life at the center of the novel is Richard a retired professor who is curious about the asylum seekers he initially does not see and then sees silently protesting in Alexanderplatz Richard was twice a refugee first as a displaced child of war and then as a citizen of a country that no longer exists urban Beck is a great deal younger and a lot less curmudgeonly than Richard but I recognize in her the careful questions she asked these men and in the quiet reversals that give the novel its poise Richard comes to realize that for all of us arrey addition his understanding of what it actually takes to survive in the world is limited and his curiosity turns to empathy and then to engagement I can't think of anything more important to be writing novels about now and I'm honored to introduce Jenny urban Beck [Applause] [Applause] I'm honored to be here and I try my best you know English is not my mother tongue and I hope I try my best to do a good reading in English I'm going to read the very beginning and some other passages and one story of one of the refugees one of the main characters in my book okay perhaps many more years still lie before him or perhaps only a few in any case from now on Richard will no longer have to get up early to appear at the Institute as of today he has time plain and simple time to travel people say to read books Proust Dostoevsky time to listen to music he doesn't know how long it'll take him to get used to having time in any case his head still works just the same as before what's he going to do with the thoughts still thinking away inside his head he's had his share of success and now at least four passes for success he's published books and been invited to conferences his lectures always filled up students were assigned his books to read highlighting passages to learn by heart for their exams where are his students now somehow junior faculty faculty positions two or three are even tailored others he hasn't heard about in years and he's still friendly with and a few others drop him a line periodically that's how it is from his desk he sees the lake Richard makes coffee cup in hand he goes out to the back yard to check for new mole hills the leg lives placed before him as it has all summer long Richard is waiting but he doesn't know for what time is now completely different suddenly different he thinks and then he thinks that obviously he can't stop thinking the thinking is what he is and at the same time it's the machine that governs him even he is alone with his head now he can't just stop thinking obviously even if no one gives a hoot what he thinks for a brief moment he imagines and all using its beak to flip the pages of his study the concept of the world and the work of Lucretius he goes back in he asks himself whether it's too warm to be varying a blazer does he even need a blazer if he's just puttering around the house alone years ago when he learned by chance that his lover was cheating on him the only thing that helped him get over his disappointment was turning this disappointment into work for months he had made her behavior his object of inquiry he rode almost 100 pages investigating all the factors that led up to the betrayal as well as the way in which the young woman had carried it out his work had no particular impact on their relationship as she left him for good not long after but still these Labour's got him through the first months after his discovery months in which he felt truly miserable the best cure for love is Ovid new centuries ago his work but how he's being tormented not by time filled with pointless love but by time itself time is supposed to pass but not just dead for an instant he has a vision of her furious all tearing apart a book entitled on waiting with its beak and talons maybe a cardigan is more appropriate to his new condition more comfortable at any rate and seeing that he no longer goes out in human society on a daily basis it's surely no longer necessary for him to shave every single morning they grow what we'll just stop putting up resistance or instead how dying begins Co dying begin with this kind of growth no that can't be right he thinks they still haven't found the men at the bottom of the lake it wasn't suicide he died in a swimming accident ever since that day in June the lake has been blessed day after day it's been perfectly calm calm and June calm and July and even now with autumn on the way it's a remains calm no robots nor shrieking children nor fishermen this summer anyone diving headfirst off the dock at the public beach could only be an outsider who hasn't heard yet by this partha is trying off after his swim a local might address him who's out walking her dog or bicyclist who dismounts for a moment to ask so you don't know richard has never mentioned the accident to an unsuspecting visitor what would be the point why ruin things for someone's who's just trying to enjoy the day strangers would park past his garden gate on the out Nick's on their outings return just as happy as they came but he can't avoid seeing the lake when he sits at his desk for dinner Richard makes open-faced sandwiches with cheese and ham with a salad on the side he slices onions for the salad he's been slicing onions all his life but as recently he saw on a cookbook the best way to hold the onion to keep it from sliding out from under the knife there is an ideal form for everything not just in matters of work and art but also for the most mundane ordinary things when it comes down to it he thinks we probably spend our entire lives just trying to attain this form and when you finally achieved it in a few different areas you get wiped off the planet the pleasure he takes in having everything in his proper place accounted for well husbanded saw that nothing is wasted the pleasure he takes an achievements that don't hinder others in their own attempts to achieve all this as he sees it boils down to the pleasure taken in a routine a sense of order that he doesn't have to establish but only find an order that lies outside him and for this reason connects him to everything that grows flies and glides while at the same time it separates him from certain people but it thought this doesn't mind he and his wife had almost always been an agreement at least about things like this at the end of the war she'd been shot in the legs a German girl strafed by German planes as she fled the Russian tanks if her brother hadn't wrecked her out of the street she certainly wouldn't have survived so his wife had learned at the age of three that everything you can't size up properly as potentially lethal he himself had been an infant when his family left Silesia and resettled in Germany and a2 mode after departure he almost got separated from his mother he would have been left behind outright if it hadn't been for a Russian soldier who I met the press of PEEP on the station platform handed him to his mother those trains window over the heads of many other reset laws this was a story his mother told him so many times that eventually it seemed to him he remembered it himself the mayhem of war was what he called it what would have become of the infant if the Train had pulled out of the station two minutes earlier what would would have become of the girl later Richard's wife if a brother hadn't pulled her out of the street in any case they never would have been a wedding joining an orphan boy to a dead girl and I'd like to read you some yeah a catalogue of questions that we had prepared for starting his research he's yeah he's making a project out of his thinking about time lifetime and time and when he decides to to make interviews with a African a group of African refugees he is preparing himself so the questions are where did you grow up what's your native language what's your religious affiliation how many people are in your family what did the apartment or house you grow up in look like how did your parents meet was there a TV where did you sleep what did you eat what was your favorite hiding place when you were retired did you go to school what sort of clothing did you wear did you have pets did you learn a trade do you have a family of your own when did you leave the country of your birth why are you still in contact with your family what was your goal when you left home how did you say your good-byes what did you take with you when you left what did you think you would be like was different how do you spend your days what do you miss most what do you wish for if you had children who were growing up here what would you tell them about your homeland can you imagine growing old here where do you want to be buried so now I'm reading one after talks he's the refugees first had a protest camp on a square in Berlin called Ohanyan Platz they have been had been living there and tents for two years and then balance and I tried to get rid of them and made a so-called agreement so they were brought to houses and there was like checking their cases and after the cases have been sect long enough like three or four months they were sent off these houses but in the time where they are staying in different houses in this case it's a nursing home for elderly people a former nursing home for elderly people which is empty now and they put the refugees into this house and there it is where Richard starts to talk to them Evert was born in Ghana his mother died giving birth to him just like plants flora Richard things just like the mother of Tristan the first day of my life of art says is also the day I lost my mother and your father that doesn't answer until the age of seven he says he lived with his Nana his grandmother is your grandmother still alive have you seen her since do you remember what he looks like no when I was seven years old his father brought him to live in Libya did he ever go back to Ghana no never his father worked in Tripoli as a driver for an oil company but was sent to school they lived alone in an eight-room house often they were guests and when his father got home from work he cooked for everyone his father played soccer with him and bought him toys gave him pocket money quite quite a lot actually he flew with him to Egypt on vacation the flight to Cairo only took 30 minutes I know my way around Cairo really well Avadh says we went over there a lot over there is what what West Germany was called back in GDR times and what father waited until evening to raise the blinds on the southern side of the house where the Sun shone all day long his father taught him how to dry his pack after a shower with a towel stretched diagonally across it his father taught him to cook and gave him his first electric razor my father told me who I am or that Awad says and then avid just sit silently for a moment gazing at the fake wood veneer on the table surface this table too may have stood 20 years ago in a folks alliterated office or in the house of German Soviet friendship but avid has no way of knowing this and he certainly has no way of knowing what folk solidarity or German Soviet friendship was and then I started to work as an auto mechanic I had friends it was a good life and then on the street outside the truck is backing up you can hear the warning signal a high-pitched beeping sound over and over in Morse code it would be zero every odd week in the calendar the plastic recycling has picked up or maybe it's a furniture delivery truck trying to turn around in the driveway then my father was shot Richard would like to say something at this point but he can't think of anything a small yellow label is affixed to the table leg inventory number 360 is less eighty-seven Richard had seen his father one last time in the hospital after his death the nurses had bound the dead man's jaw to his skull with a bandage to keep his mouth from hanging open for all eternity the bandits made his father look like a nun Richard had barely recognized him but CID spent over propping himself on his arms and gazing ever deeper into the table surface as he goes on speaking a friend of my father's called me they were here in the office he saw that your father that's all I said I didn't understand what he meant then he started started shouting again this man who never shouted who was always friendly to me now he was shouting at me and said I should run home as fast as I could and lock the door then the connection was broken off and I started running but when I got home the front door was already ripped off its hinges the windows were shattered inside everything was destroyed in the hallway the rooms the kitchen there were shards everywhere the furniture was upside down that TV was smashed everything I claimed out one of the back windows and tried to call my father's friend again I tried again and again but I couldn't get through once I also dialed my father's number nothing that's how the end was until night came I waited on the street where was I supposed to go it was the same street I walked to go to school and later to work then a military patrol came they forced me to get in the back of a truck and brought me to a barracks camp I saw there people lying on the street some of them shot others stepped on this day I saw the war on this day I saw the war there were already hundreds of people in their barracks most of them were black Africans but ever also some Arabs from Tunisia Morocco Egypt not only men but also women children babies all people they took everything away from us money what's his phones even our socks he says and stars laughing he laughs and laughs it's not easy he says and stops laughing it's not easy he says again shaking his head it's not easy as if this were the end of his story and then when I tried to complain he says they hit me in the head with a rifle but you can still see the scar I've had parts is here with his fingers and shows the scar to the Professor Emeritus with whom he's speaking today for the first time in his life if you want to arrive somewhere you can't hide anything he had said to Richard at the beginning of their conversation if you are lucky you get beaten if you are unlucky you get shot someone said to console me then they took the SIM card out of our phones and destroyed them before our eyes they broke the memory Awad says none of us had anything left except the t-shirt and pants or skirt for two days we said they and the barracks while the European bombs fell on Tripoli we were afraid one of the bombs would hit us since it was a military camp on the third day they brought us to the harbor and made us get on a boat who among you knows how to steal a boat like this two or three Arab said they did they raised the Gaddafi flag on our boat of our chests laughing a Gaddafi flick so where they got a few people Horrible's we didn't know they all had the same uniforms before this moment Richard never had never really thought that members of the military who turned against the government will still be varying their country's uniform in any case no one was on our side even though I grew up in Libya Libya was my country about not to himself and for a while he says nothing more and then then they shot herself on the air and said to us anyone who tries to swim back will be shot we didn't know where the boat was going maybe to Malta or Tunisia only later did we understand it was going to Italy we were squeezed in so tight you could only get up for a few minutes then you sit down again right where you were sitting before the woman behind me peed without getting up when I tried to prop myself up everything was wet we were in the boat for four days there were only a few bottles of water and we gave them to the children when things got too bad we adults drank salt water it's not easy Richard it's not easy we made a bigger hole in an empty plastic bottle with our teeth and then we tied together a couple of shoelaces attached the bottle and led it over the side to scoop up the seawater you have to drink a few people died they were sitting right there next to us and then one would say very quietly my head my head and then bent his head like this and then the next moment he was dead when people died we threw them into the water Richard thinks about all the airplanes from which he is locked out out the over window at some sea or other how the waves seen from above appear not to be moving at all and the white phone looks like stone in the middle of the previous century the Libyan Coast playfully belonged to Italy now Libya is a different country and two refugees who leave by boat Italy appears first in the form of a small rocky elevation surrounded by ideal of water if it appears to them at all war destroys everything avid says your family your friends the place where you lived your work your life when you become foreign avid says you don't have a choice you don't know where to go you don't know anything I can't see myself anymore can't see the child I used to be I don't have a picture of myself anymore my father is dead he says and me I don't know who I am anymore becoming foreign to yourself and others so that's what a transition looks like what's the sense of all this he asks looking back at Richard again now Richard is the one who's supposed to answer but he doesn't know how isn't it like this Avadh says every adult human being man or woman rich or poor if he has worked or not if he lives in the house or as homeless it doesn't matter every human being has a few years to live and then he dies yes that's how it is Richard says thank you [Applause] I met a Nicole Kraus in a roundabout manner I had read a chapter of the history of love in The New Yorker and was so taken by it that right away I wrote to the fiction editor to congratulate her for publishing Nicole the editor must have passed my email to Nicole who wrote back to me thanking me as luck would have it a few months later she agreed to blurb my own book we met for coffee she loved my book I loved her book she was writing another book and so was i everything about us is muted and mitigated but but when you have between us a mutual admiration society but the reason why I bring this up is that during coffee she asked me a rather bold question how did you find the courage to write this book timidly I muttered something or other by way of an inadequate explanation because quite frankly I had no sense that it had taken any courage at all it had all come as we all like to claim in our business quite naturally so today if I could I would extend Nicole the same exact question where did you find the courage to write this book partly because it is so frank so candid that it almost shouts to be taken for a memoir which happens not to be a memoir but might be a memoir but couldn't possibly be just a memoir but then we might as well ask the same question of another writer who made way through his life finds himself in a forest dark we're all reliable frames of reference are stripped of their meaning and turned out to be totally deceptive not to say hostile but this is Nicole Krauss the author of the stunning history of love and great house and in her current novel forest dark she gives us something that is as disabused a cross between an ecclesiastes who's lost all faith Dantes midlife crisis and Kafka's paradoxes we are indeed forced to wander through a tormented and difficult terrain where everything we've done down to who we are or thought we were is totally eroded we disappear from others worse yet we disappear from ourselves Who am I where am i what is this thing called life and what exactly am i doing in it and where could it possibly be headed this thing called life but Nicole Krause is truly a great writer for another reason because she is a great thinker who thinks about writing all the while thinking about so many other things she knows that all this disenchantment and chaos is all well and good but chaos and the written word don't jive don't mesh cannot coexist chaos she writes is the one truth that narratives must always betray the degree of artifice is greater than the degree of truth this is a disquieting thought as she writes I wanted to employ the good sense and studied Beauty achieved by the mechanism of narrative in a form that could contain the formless that is to have beautiful studied language that does not abolish or conceal what is formless and chaotic this is supremely difficult writing can give us form and form can provide meaning solace beauty cadence enchantment but as any therapist could remind us we live and breathe chaos all day not form we cuddle the most beautiful and the most shameless fantasies not syntax can the conventions of writing take us to chaos and then bring us back I can't but Nicole Kraus certainly can thank you [Applause] thank you I'm so happy to be here tonight and particularly I'm honored to be here with Jenny open-back whose work I've been reading I think since her first book translated into English the old child and other stories which was many years ago now and with each book I my admiration deepens and over the years somehow or other we also became friends and I had the good luck of writing some affairs dark at Jenny's desk actually in Berlin and while we were there we had a wonderful swim across that Lake you heard a little bit about and as with all of Danny's books and conversations I've had with her things from that day steep keep coming back to me even now over the years so thank you for that I'm gonna read to you from probably not too much of the memoirs parts um Andre spoke about but I'm gonna this book has two different voices in it and they're constantly running in parallel with each other and they're going over the same ground they moved from New York to the Tel Aviv Hilton and finally both explode out into the Israeli desert and but much more importantly at least to me when I was writing them was that they're always crossing and recrossing the same metaphysical ground so the book opens with his disappearance of a man named Jules Epstein and he has disappeared in that Israeli desert and I'm gonna read you from just a few pages in from that opening and in those pages you find out that he was a man of absolute authority of enormous certainty who just was at home in the world utterly at home in his material existence he acquired enormous wealth and in the wake of his pay instead she's 68 years old and leaving his wife of many decades he starts to give everything he owns away and and begins to ask himself that question what if the things on which I based my life I was wrong about what if those certainties were untrue and and he begins to sort of slowly shift toward uncertainty so this is after he's given his enormous collection of paintings away Epstein made no effort to explain himself to anyone except once to his youngest daughter Maya having arrived 13 years after Jonah and ten after Lucy at a less turbulent and agitated epoch in Epstein's life Maya saw her father in a different light there was a natural ease between them and a walk to the northern reaches of Central Park where icicles hung from the great outcrops of schist he told his younger daughter that he had begun to feel choked by all the things around him that he felt an irresistible longing for lightness it was a quality he realized only now that had been ailing to him all his life they stopped at the upper lake thinly sheeted with greenish ice when a snowflake landed on Maya's black eyelashes Epstein gently brushed it away with his thumb and Maya saw her father and fingerless gloves pushing an empty shopping cart down up her Broadway he sent friends children through college had refrigerators delivered paid for a pair of new hips for the wife of the longtime janitor of his law office he even made the down payment in a house for the daughter of an old friend not any house but a large provide with old trees and more long than the surprised new owner knew what to do with his lawyer Schloss the executor of his estate and his longtime confidant was not allowed to interfere Schloss had once had another client had caught the disease of radical charity a billionaire who gave away his houses one by one followed by the ground under his feet it was a kind of addiction he told epstein and later he might come to regret it after all he was not yet 70 he could still live 30 more years but Epstein had barely seemed to listen just as he hadn't listened when the lawyer tried to dissuade him from retiring from the firm where he'd been a partner for 25 years across the table Epstein had only smiled and changed the subject to his reading which had recently taken a mystical turn it had begun with a book Maya had given him for his birthday he told Schloss she was always giving him strange books Epstein had opened the cover one evening with no intention of reading it but it had pulled him in with an almost magnetic force it was by an israeli poet polish-born who had died at 66 two years younger than the age Epstein had just turned but the little autobiographical book the testament of a man alone facing God had been written when the poet was only 27 it had overwhelmed him Epstein told Schloss at 27 he himself had been blinded by his ambition and appetite for success for money for sex for beauty for love for the magnitudes but also the nitty-gritty for everything visible smellable palpable what might his life have been if he had applied himself with the same intensity to the spiritual realm why had he closed himself off from it so completely as he spoke sloths had taken him in his darting eyes the silver hair that came down over his collar striking because of how meticulous he had always been about his appearance what you have to say about the stake versus its competitors Epstein was known to demand of the waiter but now the plate of Dover sole remained untouched but lying as you which I only when the waiter came by to ask if anything was wrong did epstein look down and remember the food but all he did was then was push it around with his fork it was Schloss his sense that what had happened to Epstein the divorce the retirement everything coming loose coming away had begun not with a book but rather with the death of his parents but afterward wouldn't floss but Epstein into the back of the dark sedan waiting outside the restaurant the lawyer paused for a moment with his hand in the cars roof looking into the strangely vague Epstein in the dark interior he wondered briefly whether there was something more grave going on with his longtime client a kind of neurological turbulence perhaps that might develop toward the extreme before it was diagnosed as medical at the time Schloss had brushed the thought off but later it came back to him as prescient and indeed at last after nearly a year of chipping away at the accumulations of a lifetime Epstein arrived at the bottommost layer there he had on the memory of his parents who had washed up on the shores of Palestine after the war and conceived him under a burned-out ball that they had not had enough money to replace at the age of 68 having cleared a space to think he found himself consumed by that darkness deeply moved by it his parents had brought him their only son to America and once they'd learned english resumed the screaming match that they'd begun in other languages later his sister Joni came along but she a dreamy unresponsive child refused to take the bait and so the battle remained triangulated his parents screamed at each other and they screamed at him and he screamed back at them together and separately his wife LeAnn had never been able to accustom herself to such violent love though at the beginning having come from a family that suppressed even at sneezes she had been attracted to he early on in their courtship epstein had told her that from his father's brutality and tenderness he'd learned that a person can't be reduced a lesson that had guided him all his life and for a long time Leon thought of this of Epstein's own complexity has resistance to easy categorization as something to love but in the end it had exhausted her just as that it exhausted so many others though never his parents who remained his tireless sparring partners and who Epstein sometimes felt had lived on with such tenacity only to torment him he taken care of them until the end which they'd lived out in a penthouse he bought for them in Miami with deep pile carpets that came up to their ankles but he had never found peace with them and only after their deaths his mother following his father within three months and after he'd given nearly everything away did Epstein feel the sharp stab of regret the naked bulb sputtered on and off between his inflamed lids when he tried behind his inflamed lids when he tried to sleep he couldn't sleep had he accidentally given sleep away along with everything else he wanted to do something in his parents names but what his mother while still alive had proposed her Morial bench in the little park where she used to sit while upstairs his father was giving up his mind in the presence of Conchita the live-in nurse always a big reader his mother would bring a book with her to the park in her last year she had taken up Shakespeare once Epstein overheard her telling Conchita that she had to read King Lear they probably have it in Spanish she told the nurse every afternoon when the Sun was no longer at its peak his mother rode down in the elevator with a large print edition of one of the bards plays the park was rundown the play equipment caked with the ship of seagulls but there was no one in the neighborhood under the age of 65 to climb on it anyway had his mother been serious about the bench or had she suggested it with the usual sarcasm Epstein couldn't say and so to be sure a Ben should be paid that could withstand the tropical weather was ordered for the grimy Florida Park bolted with a brass plate that read in memory of Edith Edie Epstein I am NOT bound to please thee with my answer William Shakespeare he left the Colombian doorman of his parents building 200 to shine at twice a month at the same time that he polished the brass in the lobby but when the doorman texted him a photo of the pristine bench it seemed to Epstein that it was worse than if he had done nothing he remembered how his mother used to call him when too much time had gone by since he'd last phoned and in a voice hoarse from 60 years of smoking would quote God who called out to the fallen Adam I Iike which meant where are you but God knew where Adam was physically some pages go on and and the interim Epstein goes he's invited to the Plaza Hotel where there's a meeting with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a lot of important American Jews and he sits that this meeting conversation happens he has his turn to speak for the first time in his life he has nothing to say he's silent a rabbi takes his his place instead and gives a long lecture Epstein is in a hurry to get out and when he goes to give his get his coat back he gives his coat chip to the to the clerk and and she gives him the wrong coat he has a beautiful coat and he gets to sort of scratch your coat back and he says this isn't mine and it seems there's some mistake in the end somehow somebody from from the Palestinian delegation has ended up with Epstein's coat he has ended up with the other coat this book of poems was in it along with his phone for a moment this rabbi tries to stop him and says Epstein you know that that name is one of those wonderful names that goes all the way back to King David and Epstein says you must be kidding me that's a shtetl name and and he says no no really it is um an Epstein basically flees this place flees with the wrong coat less a book of poetry less his phone and as he's walking through Central Park on his way home he's he's mugged of his wallet and so after a very long day finally he he has come back home to his apartment now that the walls of the apartment were rid of paintings and he had given away the expensive furniture he needed only stand in the middle of the empty living room looking out at the darkly moving treetops to feel goosebumps rise on his arms for what simply the fact that he was still here that he had been alive long enough to arrive at a point where the circle was drawn to a close but it had almost been too late he had very nearly missed it but in the nick of time he'd become aware aware of it of what of times a shaft of light moving across the floor and now at the end of its long tale was the light falling across a parquet in the house where he had been a child or the sky over his head which was the same sky he had walked under since he was a boy no it was more than that he had rarely lifted his head above the powerful currents of his life being too busy plunging through them but there were moments now when he saw the whole view all the way to the horizon and it filled him equally with joy and with yearning still here stripped of furnishings of cash a phone of the code in his back but not yet after all ethereal Epstein felt a gnawing in the pit of his stomach he'd barely eaten at the Plaza and the donut had wetted his appetite poking the refrigerator he discovered a chicken leg a great great great great grand relative of David the boy shepherd who slung a stone at the head of Goliath of whom the woman used to say Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands but whom so that he should not remain a cold and calculating brute so that he'd be given Jewish softness Jewish intelligence Jewish depth they later made the author of the most beautiful poetry ever written Epstein smiled what else was there to still learn about himself the chicken was good but before he got to the bone he tossed the rest in the trash reaching up to open the cabinet for a glass he thought better of it ducked his head under the tap and drank thirstily in the living room Epstein touched a switch and the lights wired to an automatic dimmer came to life illuminating the burnished gold of two halos on a small panel that hung alone on the east wall though he had seen it happen countless times before he could not watch this effect without feeling a tingle and his scowl it was the only masterpiece he kept the panel of an ultra piece painted nearly 600 years ago in Florence he had not been able to bring himself to give it away he wished to live with it a little more Epstein moved toward them Mary bent and nearly bodiless and the pale pink folds that fell from her dress and the angel Gabriel who might himself be taken for a woman word not for his colored wings from the little wooden stool wedged beneath Mary one gathered that she was kneeling or would be kneeling if under the dress there was still anything physical left of her if what was Mary had not already been erased so that she could be filled up with the Son of God her curved shape was an exact echo of the white arches of her head already she was something no longer herself her long-fingered hands were folded over her flat breasts and on her face was the grave expression of a mature child meeting her difficult exalted destiny a few feet away the angel Gabriel looked lovingly down on her hands over his heart as if he too felt their the pain of her necessary future the paint was shot through with cracks but that only added to the sense of breathlessness of a great and violent force that strained below the still surface only the flat golden discs around their heads were strangely static why did the ants insist on painting halos like that why when they had already discovered how to create the illusion of depth do they always revert in this instance alone to a stubborn flatness and not just any instance but the very symbol of what drawn close to God becomes a fused with the infinite Epstein took the frame down off the wall and carried it under his arm to the bedroom last month and nude by Bernard had been carried out in her back and since then the wall opposite his bed had been empty now he had the sudden desire to see the small Annunciation hang there to wake up to it in the morning and look on at last as he drifted off to sleep but before he could manage to catch the wire on the hook the phone rang disturbing the silence Epstein strode toward the bed propped the frame against the pillows and picked up the receiver Jules it's Sharon I'm sorry but apparently the guy with your coat was feeling ill and went back to his hotel outside the expansive dark the lights of the West Side glimmered Epstein sank down in the bed next to the Virgin he pictured the Palestinian in his coat kneeling over a toilet I left a message but haven't gotten through yet Sharon continued would it be all right if I waited until tomorrow to go over your flight isn't until at night which leaves plenty of time for me to go first thing in the morning it's my sister's birthday tonight and there's a party go up steen side never mind about this it can wait are you sure I'll keep trying by phone but Epstein was not sure such had been the slow unfurling of self-knowledge these last months but only now and his assistant posed the question did he feel the wingbeat of clarity pass overhead he did not wish to be sure had lost his trust in it so that's Epstein and I'll read you just a tiny tiny scene from the other voice in the book it was a writer who's about thirty nine or so I can find it well she finds herself in that place in life where again may not be unfamiliar to others here where those forms that she has chosen have simply drone too small for her the forms of wife and mother and daughter but also the forms of the novel and she is looking for a way to to escape innocence she's looking for the courage to escape and to break those forms for as long and to jump into formlessness for as long as it takes her to find something larger and more free just she's going to tell you about why she has this peculiar obsession with the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel where she imagines setting a novel that she's having trouble writing and she just described to you that it's it's actually the kind of almost mystical nature of this hotel that she's been visiting since she was a child where she might have been conceived and her parents married there and that that sort of continues to draw her and she's going to describe she the spine-tingling nature of something that once happened to me there an experience that only increased my awareness of an opening a small tear in the fabric of reality it occurred in the hotel swimming pool when I was 7 I spent a lot of time in that pool which was set in a large terrace overlooking the sea and fed by its saltwater the year before our visit had overlap with Itzhak Perlman and one morning after breakfast we came out and found him parked by the deep end throwing a ball to his children who took turns leaping into the pool trying to catch it the sight of the great violinist in his glinting wheelchair along with a murky awareness the polio that had crippled him had something to do with swimming pools terrified me the next day I refused to go down to the pool altogether and the day after that we left Israel and flew back to New York the following year returned to the hotel with a feeling of unease but Pearlman didn't reappear furthermore in the first day back my brother and I discovered that the pool was full of money shekels everywhere shimmering mutely on the floor of the pool as if the drain were hooked up to bank Apollo lien whatever lingering fears I had about swimming were shunted aside by the steady flow of cash we could turn up hasn't any well-run operation we seem divided and specialized my brother two years older became the diver and I with smaller lung capacity and keener eyes became the spotter and my direction he would plunge down and grope around at the blurry bottom if I had been right as I was about 65% of the time who had burst excitedly to the surface clutching the coin one afternoon after a string of false calls I began to feel desperate the day was wearing on and our time in the pool was almost up my brother was waiting morose along the wall of the shallow end I couldn't help myself and from the middle of the pool shouted there I was lying seeing nothing but I couldn't resist the chance to make my brother happy again he came splashing toward me right there I yelled he went below I knew there was nothing at the bottom and now treading water at the top I waited miserably for my brother to find out to the crushing guilt I felt in those few moments comes vividly back even more than thirty years later it was one thing to lie to my parents but to so blatantly betray my brother was something else again as for what happened next I have no explanation for it or none beyond the possibility that the laws we cling to in order to assure ourselves that all is as it seems have occluded a more complex view of the universe one that forgoes the comfort of squeezing the world to fit the limited reach of our comprehension otherwise how else to explain that when my brother surfaced and uncurled his fingers lying in his palm was an earring with three diamonds and beneath them hanging from a gold loop at the bottom a Ruby heart and dripping bathing suits we followed our mother through the frigid air-conditioned hallways of the hotel to the H Stearns in the lobby she explained the situation to the balding jeweler who looked at us dubiously as he pushed a tray lined with blue velvet across the glass countertop my mother laid the earring down and the jeweler fit the loop to his eye he studied our treasure when he lifted his head at last as giant magnified eyes swiveled over us real had pronounced the gold is 18 karat real the word catches in the throat and won't go down it never occurred to me then that the earring might be fake in the way my mother had suspected it was and yet only I knew just how unreal it was how against the odds was my brother's discovery of it how it had materialized an answer to a need no young child naturally believes that reality is firm to her it Springs are loose it is open to her special pleading but slowly she is taught to believe otherwise and by then I was seven old enough to have mostly come around to accepting that reality was fixed and utterly indifferent to my longings now at the last minute a foot was put in the way of a door closing thank you [Applause]

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