'A lucky life'

"'A lucky life'" Continued...

Issue: "Iraq: The other caucuses," Jan. 31, 2004

I have had what I believe qualifies as genuine sadness in my life: a divorce, the loss of a son in his late 20s. I also underwent bypass surgery, which is now too commonplace to gain much in the way of sympathy. But my despair has not, I think, been prolonged. I used to joke that I hadn't the attention span to sustain real depression. F. Scott Fitzgerald says somewhere that by middle age a man or woman ought properly to be mildly depressed, by which I suspect he meant that life is by then more than half over, the grave looms, one's achievements may not outweigh one's regrets. But what has kept me from serious depression is an awareness of my good luck in life-my good luck in having been born in America, in having had honorable and kind parents, in being married to the right woman, in having been paid decently to do the work I love. With all this good fortune, to allow myself to lapse into depression, let alone despair, would be unbalanced, not to say simply dopey.

WORLD: Your short story characters are often dry cleaners, scrap-metal dealers, and others unlikely to be welcomed for wine and cheese at Northwestern, but they are thoughtful and also in touch with more than the latest fashion in clothes or coffee. You seem to prefer these tough, solitary middle-aged and elderly men to doctors who can pull in $15,000 in a morning doing colonoscopies. Why?

JE: I've long thought that work is one of the things that has gone out of much American and English fiction-and long regretted it. What a person does for a living, after all, is one of the most significant things about him or her. Balzac, Dickens, Trollope, Dreiser, all knew that there was an intrinsic fascination in the details of work. I suspect that one of the reasons that work has gone out of most American fiction is that too many writers have become teachers of creative writing. There isn't too much to learn about the actual world in a college setting, and, because of this, I once claimed that the fiction of the future was likely to be about fancy fornication and new-fangled (and mostly hopeless) ideas.

You are correct again about my partiality for writing about middle-aged men who have been toughened up by the world of their work. These are usually men who know that life entails a good deal of struggle, and that no one gives away anything that is important, and so one must be clever, savvy, sometimes cunning, always on guard. Life gives such characters a point of view-not necessarily the correct point of view, but a sense of how the world works, and a certainty that it doesn't do so through the power of supposedly enlightened opinions on, say, recycling and vegetarianism.

WORLD: You write in one of your books of essays, With My Trousers Rolled, "Vanity, vanity, vanity. Vain, empty, and valueless, Webster calls it, and yet who is without it? Let him who is cast the first comb." You frequently play off biblical references in a witty way. What formal or informal biblical education did you grow up with, and what effect did it have on you?

JE: When I was a small boy, my father used to read stories to me out of a children's Bible. Between the ages of 10 and 13, like many Jewish boys of my generation, I was sent to Hebrew school to train for my bar mitzvah. But I did not otherwise grow up in a very religious household. My father was very edgy about anti-Semitism, which he felt-rightly, I believe-would never disappear, and very concerned about the fate of the Jewish people; he was an adult during World War II and knew what Hitler was up to. I would say that my being Jewish has had a much stronger influence on my general outlook than my Judaism, which, owing to my own intellectual laziness, is thin, to put it very gently.

Your question, though, touches me on a sensitive point, and this is that I, who claim to be a literary man and well read, have never read the Bible straight through, though I've twice read those much longer works by Proust and Edward Gibbon. I mention those two writers because I sense that, if I am to read through the Bible before I depart the planet, I shall have to do it the same way I read them: 20 pages a day, everyday, religiously (you might say).


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