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30 Days, 30 Authors: Austin Ratner

Saturday, November 14, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Austin Ratner is author of the novels In the Land of the Living and The Jump Artist, winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. His non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, and his short fiction has been honored with the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize. He attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Before turning his focus to writing he received his M.D. from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and he is co-author of the textbook Concepts in Medical Physiology. He grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and now lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and two sons.


A Kvetchy Correspondence

Monday, April 08, 2013 | Permalink

Between February 15, 2013 and March 10, 2013, Allison Amend and Austin Ratner, two members of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize "class," discussed literary fiction in society, their JBC Network tours, and the publication of their new novels—Allison's new novel, A Nearly Perfect Copy, will be published this week, and Austin's new novel, In the Land of the Living, was published last month. Read their redacted kvetchy correspondence below:


Dear Austin,

 So great to be having an email conversation with you. Having won the Sami Rohr Prize, you are official a Really Big Deal. My first question: How does it feel to be a Really Big Deal?



Ha! I wish I did feel that way. There are so many anxieties surrounding the publication of a book. What if no one likes it? What if I should have written a different book in a different way? What if it is in fact a great book but the robots are about to take over? What if the robots find it boring?

Anyway, this leads me to a question for you: There are so many challenges that lie in the way of creating a book—no amount of whining can ever really tell the tale of how hard it is—and yet when the victory comes and the author copies arrive, I can barely enjoy it. Can you? If so, how?


Dear Austin,

I worry a bit more about the zombie apocalypse rather than the robot revolution, but that's just my meshugas...

I believe we cannot enjoy the moment for two reasons. One, we are writers, and so are a particularly navel-gazing bunch. When we look up from the navel, we worry that even though our books are doing well, they could have done better…

I don't have children, but I imagine publishing must be like sending your child to kindergarten. You're proud, and yes, she is ready to go out on her own, but what if someone throws sand at her on the playground?

Two, we are Jewish, and I was raised by my grandmother to believe that if anything good happens and you enjoy it, you're just begging for Almighty to cut you down to size.

And speaking of being Jewish, did you go to a lot of JBC Network events, and, if so, do you have favorite moments (change the names/locations to protect the innocent)?



The JBC Network is a magnificent resource to Jewish writers. Of course, some of the events go better than others. Here is one particularly memorable story that sticks in my mind:

[The following correspondence has been partially redacted.]

The ****** event was ******. I was picked up at the airport by ************************. They asked ******************************* ****************** like, "************************************ *************************?" I explained about ***************** *************************. They seemed ********* and *** that the **************************************. ********, they explained, *** ***********************. ******************************************** ************************. (This is really true; it turned out that ******************************************************************* **************.) When we got to the ************ ***—this is also true—exactly *** *********************, and I think he was demented and had been looking for the toilet. So I ********* ************************************************************: the *********** JCC coordinator (who ***************************** *** *************** to ***** ************ and *************, she ******** *********************************); ******************************** *********************** *************************** fell asleep.

Meanwhile, I am about to move out of my apartment, which is the one quiet place I've ever lived in in NYC. (The irony being that my extremely loud children live inside it with me.) Proust supposedly lined his office walls with cork. Any trouble with noise? Any solutions?



[The following correspondence has been partially redacted.]

Network memories... At one event the woman who picked me up *****************. We had to go around and pick up everyone who couldn't drive anymore. Then we went to the kosher deli and she put the rolls in her purse.

I also remember a ******** woman who claimed that the demise of Judaism was being effected by my generation marrying outside the faith. I pointed out I wasn't married—to a Jew or a gentile—but if she knew anyone she should let me know.

As to noise, I'm not terribly sensitive, but there's noise, and then there's the noise of little children wanting to play with you, which, along with waterboarding and sleep deprivation, has been declared a torture method by our government.

I have belonged to writing spaces for years, mostly to get out of the house so I have to get dressed in the morning and converse with other humans. For a long time I belonged to the Writers Room in New York. Then I needed to look at different walls, so I joined Paragraph on 14th street. I love having an "office" to go to, and meeting in the kitchen to talk about writing. I've met lots of people who have introduced me to others in the community, and now I never stand awkwardly at a party again! And there's free coffee.

Ok, on a different topic, did you take time off of writing to promote/finish up In the Land of the Living? How do you juggle different projects in different phases? I’m trying to write something new, but I'm having trouble concentrating in anticipation of the book’s release.


I guess… there's a pleasing rhythm to your work as a writer if you have the good fortune to publish more than one book: you take a break from the creative work on the next book to do a little bit of work promoting the last one or earning some money. Even non-writing activities can be a welcome relief, since doing nothing but open yourself to the muses can be a kind of torture in its unadulterated form.

Let's pretend we had a genie in a bottle and could make a wish. Given the many difficulties of writing and publishing fiction, what one thing would you change about the way society treats writers of literary fiction?


Let's see... what I would like most from literary publishing would be to 1. earn a living wage from writing novels and 2. be paid a true advance like writers used to be paid. I get to live in New York, and I love to teach, but sometimes writing necessarily takes a secondary role to more pressing duties…there's often just not a lot of creative energy left over.

If you could wave your magic wand, what would you wish for?


I think I would cast a spell on myself that made it impossible for me to lose perspective when I hit all the little bumps and snags along the way in the writing life. Call it the bird's-eye view spell: avitus oculus visum. Serenity now.

Another question: how do you like giving elevator pitches about your book? You know, when people say what is it "about." What is your book about? And what would your elevator pitch be if you already knew you were speaking to your ideal reader?


I know all about the elevator pitch from some time I spent in LA, where you should always have a log line to your movie ready in case you get into an elevator with Steven Spielberg. (It just occurred to me that his last name is SPIELberg. Awesome.) I do try to have a 10-word answer prepared and a 75-word answer, just in case.

10-word: It's about art forgery and the impossibility of duplication or replication. (ok, it's 11 words)

75 word: It's the story of a woman who is the director of 18th-19th Century prints and drawings at a prestigious auction house in New York who is grieving her dead son. The other protagonist is a frustrated Spanish artist living in Paris who turns to forging artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War Two for recognition and money. Eventually their stories converge, and the book asks questions about authenticity and replication of the irreplaceable. (That's 76 words).

I have to resist the 1000 word answer, which is what I'd really like to give, to gift the reader all the nuances I've crammed into those 300 pages, but no one really wants to listen to that: It's about love! And death! And science! And art! And marriage! And being an artist! And growing older! And raising children! And living in Paris! And New York! And art stolen by Nazis! And the insufficiency of reparations!

The only question I hate getting, though, is "What kind of writing do you do?" I usually answer: "Literary fiction." When the person stares at me blankly I add: "You know, stuff they read in college or in Oprah's Book Club. Stuff no one buys."

Wait, there's a question I hate more: "How many pages is your book?" If I answer that, what will that tell you? I know it's just a question people ask when they don't know anything about writing and want to express polite interest.

I'm thrilled when someone wants to know that I do… and I'll happily give that 1000 word explanation to whomever is interested.

Your elevator pitch?


Your book sounds great to me. I love your idea of "replication of the irreplaceable."

My book is about loss in early, early childhood and how it projects itself throughout the rest of a person's life. The theme is played out across two generations of a Jewish family from Cleveland, Ohio.


Sounds like an important theme you’re exploring—I can’t wait to read it. Maybe I could even have a copy signed by the author?

This has been so much fun corresponding with you. I’m glad the JBC introduced us!


Likewise! Now, to the bar!

Read more about Allison Amend here and read more about Austin Ratner here.

A Novel About Early Childhood

Thursday, March 14, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Sami Rohr Prize winner Austin Ratner discussed the land of the living versus the land of "The Princess Bride." He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Some academics have observed that young Jewish writers do not mine their personal lives for material in the same way that Jewish writers did a generation ago. In my own case, this is and isn't true. My first novel, The Jump Artist, was based on someone else’s life and took place in lands and days disparate from my own. My second novel, In the Land of the Living, which is being released by Little Brown this week, draws on my own personal experiences and on events in the history of my own family. It’s first and foremost about loss at a tender age, and finding your way out from under the pall of grief, back to the land of the living, and to all that makes life worth living. (Why am I not on Oprah’s book list?)

If a book gets its license to exist from a fresh or unique subject, then my book’s claim would lie in its manner of depicting early childhood. Most novels do not incorporate early childhood into their storylines or into their characters at all, except in metaphorical ways. Mary Shelley and Toni Morrison are two writers who invented rather ingenious novelistic contraptions to represent early childhood: Shelley did it by writing of a human man made from scratch and educated (and abused) like a child, Morrison by turning a dead child into an adult ghost in Beloved. In his autobiographical novel Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, Tolstoy wrote about his mother’s death, which happened when he was two, but he revised his age to something like eight to make the scenes more artistically manageable. James Joyce writes directly of early childhood in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but he does so impressionistically and does not draw any firm connections between those opening early childhood scenes and later ones. I have taken a different approach by depicting early childhood experiences directly and carrying through their implications in every other scene of the book.

Having said that, there is something suspicious to me in the notion that a novel needs “uniqueness” in order to be valuable. “Uniqueness” sounds a lot like “competitive advantage”—a phrase from the world of commerce, not literature. A writer sets out to portray what is true to him or her, and also, usually, what is beautiful. New styles, new philosophies, new insights into character, forays into unknown subject matter—these things come about automatically when new voices do a good job examining the same old world on a cutting edge that is provided to them by time itself: another day.

Austin Ratner's new novel, In the Land of the Living, is now available.

My Name Is Inigo Montoya

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | Permalink

Austin Ratner won the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for his first novel, The Jump Artist. His new novel, In the Land of the Living, is now available. He will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Remember Mandy Patinkin’s character Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride? When Montoya was a child, the story goes, the six-fingered man killed his father. He also slashed Montoya’s face, leaving him with scars on both cheeks. Montoya spends the rest of his life training to exact vengeance on his father’s killer. He practices not only his swordsmanship but just what he’ll say when he finally finds and confronts the six-fingered man: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

The main character in my second novel In the Land of the Living is a boy like that, a boy with a dead father, a boy bent on recompense and committed to its pursuit for as long as it takes. His problem is that there is no six-fingered man to kill.

Instead, he attempts to resurrect his father in a manner of speaking—by hewing to certain superhuman ideals in order to safeguard his father’s legacy from the oblivion of the grave. He will brook no failure in his career or his personal life and strives to excel everybody at everything (with the exception of phys ed). Anyone and everyone who gets in his way is the six-fingered man.

William Goldman, the screenwriter of The Princess Bride, has a cynical streak. It’s evident in his first novel Temple of Gold and it’s evident in the way he wreathes so many ironies into the sentimentality of The Princess Bride. A little of that cynicism comes out when Inigo Montoya actually does confront the six-fingered man. His lifelong search has come to an end at last, and Montoya delivers his practiced line, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” He battles his enemy by sword as planned, but the six-fingered man appears to defeat him. Montoya slumps backward, mortally wounded, and gives up with a line that still sucks the air from my lungs: “Sorry, Father. I tried.” It doesn’t seem to be Inigo Montoya the man that’s defeated then; it’s the boy who took on a task that was much too big for him out of love for the father that should have been there to help him.

Being a feel-good Hollywood movie, Montoya of course fights back from the edge of defeat. But in a way, what follows is even more cynical. The six-fingered man begs for his life. He promises Montoya anything he wants in exchange for mercy and Montoya answers, “I want my father back, you son of a bitch,” and he kills the six-fingered man.

He doesn’t fail his father after all, but because he can’t have the one thing he wants—for his father to be alive—he does in a sense fail himself. He asks his friend what he ought to do with his life now that his quest is over, and when his friend suggests he become a pirate, it seems ridiculous even according to the unreal, comedic laws of Hollywood fantasy. With his face alone, Mandy Patinkin smuggles into the scene a look of haunting ennui before the comedy-romance carries on with its merry business.

My book, In the Land of the Living, is a pretty funny book—it needs to be, to balance out the tragedy at the core of it—but it’s no Hollywood comedy. It’s a realist novel, and its protagonist doesn’t have the option of sailing away as the Dread Pirate Roberts, much as he’d like to. The land of the living is a less forgiving place than the land of The Princess Bride. Neither the death of the six-fingered man nor suicide solve the problem of grief. The only way forward is to figure out how to live a good life. And that is where my main character’s odyssey begins. Off he goes through graveyards and hospitals, loving and losing, traveling with his brother from L.A. to Cleveland in search of an answer to the question of how to live.

I think of it as a modern-day Don Quixote. In Part I, I used chapter titles that satirize medieval romance just as Cervantes did. It’s a novel that purposely dwells in an unstable region between comedy and tragedy, dream and reality, which is to say that it dwells in the real world, where the laws of nature are unyielding, and the human heart unflagging.

Check back on Thursday for more from Austin Ratner.

Book Cover of the Week: In the Land of the Living

Friday, January 25, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Okay, time to get excited people. We're only two months away from the pub date of Sami Rohr Prize Winner Austin Ratner's new novel In the Land of the Living. You'll hear a lot more about this title (and Austin!) over the next few months...

Related: Austin Ratner on the Visiting Scribe and on excavating moral psychology

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.

Book Cover of the Week: The Jump Artist

Thursday, July 26, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Sami Rohr Prize Winner Austin Ratner's The Jump Artist is now available in the UK, with this beauty of a cover: 

Review in Daily Telegraph, "David Annand enjoys a deftly constructed portrait of an artist’s extraordinary life":

Feature in the Guardian mentioning Sami Rohr prize:

An article Austin Ratner wrote on Halsman made the cover of the Sunday Express:

Two BBC interviews with Austin Ratner:

Righting Wrongs

Friday, April 15, 2011 | Permalink

Ealier this week, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches and patricide, photography, and Audrey Hepburn. His first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Author Blog.

It goes against my convictions as a novelist to characterize any person as either a demon or a hero; human nature isn’t so simple.  It’s the fascist psyche that adores such black-and-white categories: good or bad, Aryan or Jew, friend or enemy, worthy of life or of extermination.  But even in a psychologically mature piece of fiction, there are protagonists and antagonists and what divides them from one another in The Jump Artist is precisely their degree of maturity of thought—i.e., their ability or inability to think in a nuanced, non-binary way.  Karl Meixner, a fascist, had a lot of trouble thinking that way.  Philippe Halsman’s attorney in the second trial, by contrast, refused to see the world in the polarized terms that would later dominate the politics of Grossdeutschland.

In the first trial, Philippe had been defended by a famous Jewish attorney from Vienna named Richard Pressburger.  The proceedings lasted just three days and presented little evidence against Philippe, but the jury convicted him with just as little deliberation.  “After hardly a half an hour,” a major Vienna paper reported, “the jury foreman pronounces the verdict: the accused is guilty of murder, with nine against three votes.” (Arbeiter Zeitung, “A Wrong Verdict in Innsbruck? A Half-hour Consultation,” December 17, 1928.)  By the second trial on appeal, the Halsman family understood the extent of local prejudices against outsiders.  When the family hired the defense team for the second trial, they sought out local Gentiles to represent Philippe.  The new attorneys were Innsbruckers Paul Mahler and Franz Pessler.

Pessler was born May 13, 1893 in Linz (an Austrian city halfway between Vienna and Salzburg).  Halsman describes Pessler as “a very interesting person, a former Jesuit student,” in a letter dated March 23, 1929.  He was a veteran of the First World War, described as “young, daring” in Die Wahrheit, a Vienna newspaper, on September 20, 1929.  Pessler married a Viennese woman named Martha Lodenbauer, with whom he lived in Innsbruck at 29 Anichstrasse.  According to the records in the Tiroler Landesarchiv (Geschäftszahl TLA-0509/1720-2006), they had no children.

Pessler was deeply committed to the defense of civil liberties even as Austria careened into fascism.  His passion for justice is reflected in his own account of the trials, “Ein Bild des Prozesses” (“A Picture of the Proceedings”), published in a paperback volume called Der Fall Halsmann, issued in 1931 by the Austrian League for Human Rights.  (The Austrian League was a sister organization of the French League for the Defense of Human Rights, which had 20 years earlier defended the Jew Alfred Dreyfus following his indictment and false conviction in Paris.)  After the second verdict, Pessler continued to fight on Philippe’s behalf for legal redress, and he took part in the effort to obtain a pardon from Chancellor Johann Schober.

The trials affected him on a personal level, as well.  He writes in Der Fall Halsmann, pp. 90-91:

[Philippe] left prison as a broken man.  His imprisonment has resulted in a lung infirmity.  His engineering studies have been interrupted and subsequently cut off.  Who can right all the wrongs he has suffered?  Even if we succeed in bringing another trial to court, and prove his innocence beyond a doubt, the years of imprisonment and the horrible accusations have taken their toll.

We must learn for the future to be careful with any trial based on circumstantial evidence.  In any such future case we must remember Philipp Halsman.

Philippe, in turn, felt he would never forget his attorney.  In a letter to Ruth Römer dated January 28, 1930, Philippe writes: “[Dr. Pessler] sat down on the table and began to weep…. I will never forget how much [his tears] moved me, and how much I loved him the moment he wiped the table dry.”

After the Anschluss with Germany, Pessler ran afoul of the Nazis; he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp as a political prisoner on May 31, 1938 and was not released until almost a year later, on April 22, 1939.  According to the Tiroler Landesarchiv, he’d been added to the Nazis’ “Schwarzen Liste,” or Black List, because in 1938 he served as public defender for Friedrich Wurnig, an SS officer who was tried for murder; Pessler lost the case and Wurnig was executed.  Shortly after Pessler’s internment at Dachau, his wife moved to Eggenberg.  He survived the war and died in the same year as did his former client Philippe Halsman: 1979.

Austin Ratner‘s first book, The Jump Artist, is now available.

Patricide, Photography, and Audrey Hepburn

Wednesday, April 13, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches. His first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s author blogging series.

People who have read The Jump Artist sometimes ask me what’s fact and what’s fiction. My answer is that it’s all fiction, but it’s fiction that incorporates as many facts as I could uncover and reasonably include. Years of research yielded certain results that tested me as a fiction writer—and none more so than those concerning Karl Meixner. To write about him truthfully was to risk caricature or cliché. Did he really keep Max Halsman’s head in a jar? Lest anyone think I invented him and his bizarre activities with human remains, here are some of the historical facts I uncovered about him:

  • Meixner was a professor of pathology at the Institute for Juridical Medicine in Innsbruck and an expert witness in the Halsman trials. Defense attorney Franz Pessler’s account of the trial in Der Fall Halsman points to Meixner as one of the most spirited advocates for Halsman’s conviction. In turn, Meixner was a focus of opprobrium from academics all over Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. He published impassioned defenses of himself and of his reasons for condemning Halsman.
  • He has a convincing record as a fascist and an anti-Semite. Before joining the medical faculty at the University of Innsbruck, Meixner had been an active member of Vienna’s openly anti-Semitic fraternity, Burschenschaft Olympia. And in 1946, when the war was over, Meixner was recommended for forced retirement by the “investigation committee” of the University of Innsbruck because of his reputation as a “radical Nazi.” (See Oberkofler, Gerhard and Peter Goller, Die Medizinische Fakultät Innsbruck: Faschistische Realität [1938] and Kontinuität unter postfaschistischen Bedingungen [1945], Eine Dokumentation, Innsbruck: Universität Innsbruck, 1999, p. 121.)
  • There is also convincing evidence of his transgressions against medical ethics. According to Oberkofler and Goller, directors of the University of Innsbruck archives, Meixner received a Nazi decree titled “Re.: Transfer of Corpses of the Executed to the Institutes of Anatomy” and affirmed it with his signature on March 18, 1939 (Oberkofler and Goller, pp. 12-14). The decree dictated that the corpses of Nazi prisoners executed without trial and then denied burial rites be delivered to Austrian universities for scientific use.
  • There is no data on how many corpses were transferred to the University of Innsbruck medical school under the decree sent to Meixner (and to a couple of others on the medical faculty). Nor is it known what may have been done with such corpses. However, it is well known that the Nazi policy on executed prisoners was exploited significantly at the University of Vienna. A University of Vienna inquiry, made at the behest of Yad Vashem, revealed in 1998 that Dr. Eduard Pernkopf acquired 1400 cadavers from Nazi executions for his anatomic studies. Pernkopf had been an active member of the Nazi party since 1933, and in the original editions of his world-famous anatomy text, his artists signed their names with swastikas and SS symbols.
  • Staff at Yad Vashem informed me that their correspondence with the University of Innsbruck on this subject will remain classified under Israeli law until 2020. It will be interesting to see what other non-consensual uses of human remains belong to Karl Meixner’s curriculum vitae; he certainly demonstrated significant credentials along these lines during the Halsman trials. According to newspaper reports, Meixner had Philippe Halsman’s father’s head separated from his body and, over the defense’s formal protests, he kept it in a jar at the Institute as a specimen. “I had repeatedly requested that the head of Max Halsman be released for burial,” Franz Pessler writes on p. 76 of his essay on the trial, published in 1931 by the Austrian League for Human Rights. Meixner displayed the head to Franz Pessler before the second trial and again to the jury during the second trial. See Pessler, pp. 53, 76-77. (For photographs of the severed head, see Meixner, “Lehren des Halsmannprozesses,” Beitrage zur gerichtlichen Medizin, Vol. 10, 1930, pp. 62-76, and Heindl, “Der Mordprozeß Halsmann,” Archiv für Kriminologie, Vol. 92, No. 5/6, Jun 1933, pp. 185-188.)
  • Max Halsman’s head remained there in formaldehyde until 1991, according to an article in November of that year in The Jerusalem Report. (See Wise, Michael Z., “Vienna’s Dreyfus Case,” Jerusalem Report, Nov 21, 1991. p. 4.) It appears Max Halsman’s head was part of a collection of body parts and dead animals which Meixner had carefully tended and stocked. “In his capacity as morphologist, Meixner gave particular attention to the completion of the Juridical Medicine Museum, pushing for an expansion of its collection. Meixner also achieved the expansion of the Institute itself by establishing a facility for animals and a workshop.” (From Hundert Jahre Medizinische Fakultät Innsbruck 1869 bis 1969, p. 273. You can also find Karl Meixner’s face in this volume, pictured in plate no. 43. In 100 years of faculty photographs at the University of Innsbruck, Meixner is the only doctor of medicine to sit for a formal indoor portrait with his hat on. He glowers like a B-movie police inspector.)
  • Meixner died on March 6, 1955, just 4 months before Philippe Halsman would make his 75th Life Magazine cover, a photograph of Audrey Hepburn on her farm in Rome under a pair of white doves.

Austin Ratner‘s first book, The Jump Artist, is now available. Come back all week to read his posts.

As Jewish as a Hillel Sandwich

Monday, April 11, 2011 | Permalink

Austin Ratner‘s first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

When I learned about Philippe Halsman’s life-story and determined I would write a novel about him (The Jump Artist, 2011 winner of the Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature), I was struck by the contradictions he embodied.  Here was a man whom history had ensnared in a frightful way—at the age of 22, he was falsely accused of murdering his father in anti-Semitic western Austria, and he served two years in prison, where he attempted suicide and almost died of tuberculosis.  At the same time, here was a man who re-emerged in New York in the 1940s as a photographer—one whose work expressed the playfulness and optimism of post-war life in America on the covers of Life magazine.  Halsman himself was by all accounts a secular Jew, but his story and his work are as Jewish as a Hillel sandwich, and represent almost as neatly the opposite poles of pain and joy that define the Jewish historical experience.

It’s clear that the events of Halsman’s twenties shaped and scarred him, and in a permanent way.  In a 1995 interview with Einstein biographer Denis Brian, Philippe’s wife Yvonne Halsman said of the “Austrian Dreyfus Affair” of 1928, “It was a suffering for him for the rest of his life. And for his mother and sister and for all of us.”  But it’s also clear that he became an astute observer of people, their psyches, and their torment, and turned pain into art, sometimes with a Kafkaesque sense of humor.  He collaborated often with Salvador Dali.

Calling himself the discoverer of “Jumpology,” he also compelled hundreds of subjects to jump in the air for his camera—everyone from Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe to Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Nixon. He wrote in his 1959 Jump Book, “The roots of my discovery reach into my early childhood. I was born with an intense interest in jumping…. I could run, jump and turn over in the air.” He delighted in jumping throughout his life and in photographingothers in the act of jumping. “Everybody hides behind a mask,” Halsman writes. “In a jump the subject, in a sudden burst of energy, overcomes gravity. He cannot simultaneously control his expressions, his facial and his limb muscles. The mask falls. The real self becomes visible. One has only to snap it with the camera.”

Upon photographing the great jurist Learned Hand, then aged 87, jumping off the ground, Halsman concluded that jumping was, among other things, a revolt against death and despair.  Halsman, like the Jewish people at different points in their history, found a way to rise above his hardships, as if by an act of magic levitation.  As a writer and as a Jew, I found his story irresistible.

Austin Ratner‘s first book, The Jump Artist, is now available. Come back all week to read his posts.

2011 Sami Rohr Prize Winner Announced

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 | Permalink





March 22, 2011 (New York, NY) – The Jewish Book Council today named Austin Ratner the winner of the $100,000 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in fiction for his debut novel The Jump Artist (Bellevue Literary Press ). The Jewish Book Council is also pleased to announce Joseph Skibell, author of A Curable Romantic (Algonquin Books), isthe 2011 runner-up and recipient of the $25,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Choice Award. Established in 2006, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature is the largest monetary award of its kind given to writers of exceptional talent and promise in early career.

Hailed as a transformative award for emerging writers, the annual Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature honors the contribution of contemporary writers in the exploration and transmission of Jewish values and is intended to encourage and promote outstanding writing of Jewish interest in the future. Fiction and non-fiction books are considered in alternate years.

The Jump Artist was featured in Publishers Weekly in spring 2009 as one of 10 promising debut novels.  Based on the true story of Phillipe Halsman, a man who Adolf Hitler knew by name, who Sigmund Freud wrote about in 1930, and who put Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Life magazine, the novel has been called “a remarkable work…[that] documents a triumph of the human spirit over tremendous adversity” (Harper’s Magazine), and an “elegantly written tribute [that] makes as beautiful a use of the darkness and light of one man’s life as a Halsman photograph of a pretty young woman” (GQ).

The finalists for the fifth annual Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature are:

Allison Amend – Stations West (Louisiana State University Press)

Nadia KalmanThe Cosmopolitans (Livingston Press)

Julie OrringerThe Invisible Bridge (Knopf)

By virtue of being named a Rohr Prize finalist, these writers are welcomed into the fellowship of a foremost Jewish literary community. The winners, finalists, judges and advisory board members of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature meet biennially at the Sami Rohr Jewish Literary Institute, a forum devoted to the continuity of Jewish literature. The Institute, run under the auspices of the Jewish Book Council, creates an environment in which established and emerging writers can meet and exchange ideas and perspectives. Within a short period of time, the Sami Rohr Jewish Literary Institute has become an important meeting place for the leading lights of the American Jewish literary world.

For more information about The Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, please click here!