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Interview: David Bezmozgis

Tuesday, April 25, 2017 | Permalink

with Ranen Omer-Sherman

Photo: David Franco

With the American debut of Natasha, a Canadian film based on the short story by National Jewish Book Award winner David Bezmozgis, in select theaters this week, Jewish Book Council sat down with the author to discuss the story, the film, and David Bezmozgis’s career and writing at large.

Ranen Omer-Sherman: Your short story “Natasha” contrasts a young Canadian’s stoner, suburban life with the tough exigencies of his newly arrived female relative’s earlier adolescence in Russia. What were some of the most significant challenges you encountered in trying to capture the story’s essence on film?

David Bezmozgis: To be honest, the most significant challenges were practical not creative—although the creative ones weren’t insignificant. Perhaps my primary motivation for turning "Natasha" into a film was to render a faithful account of contemporary North American Russian Jewish immigrant life on the screen. I’d seen it done in Israeli cinema, but never North American. To do it, the film needed to be mostly in Russian and cast with real Russian-speaking actors. Raising the money for such a film and finding the right actors was hard. There were just enough quality Russian-speaking actors in Canada—most of them trained in the former Soviet Union and Israel—to make the filming possible.

ROS: You vividly evoke the sharp generational contrasts dependant on when individuals emigrated from Latvia and Moscow. Are those differences still strongly felt?

DB: The film was shot in 2014, before the most heated debates about refugees and immigrants, but one aspect that rarely gets spoken about even now is the difference within immigrant communities. Most of these differences have to do with class—which today is about money—but some has to do with psychology. And so part of what accounts for the conflict in Natasha is the disparity between older and newer immigrants. It’s a distinction that diminishes over time, but in the film, we see it when it’s most acute.

ROS: After immersing yourself in shooting Natasha for many months, have your feelings about your vocation as an artist changed in any way? Do you feel a greater affinity with cinematic expression than fiction now? In your self-reflective article, “Origin, Story” you candidly describe your unease about the future of literature. Do you worry about the fate of the novel?

DB: I worry about the fate of literature and cinema pretty much equally. I’d worry less if there was some other form emerging that did what great books and films do—which is allow a reader or viewer to feel a sense of communion with another human consciousness. That kind of art is usually the product of a single authorial voice. An author. A film director. I don’t know if the readership or viewership is shrinking, only that there seems to be less money for people to write books and make movies whose objective is not primarily commercial.

ROS: Why did you choose to update “Natasha” (originally set in the 1980s) to the age of social media? Was that primarily a pragmatic choice, given the production costs of getting historical details right?

DB: I updated it for both practical and creative reasons. My previous film, Victoria Day, was set in the 1980s and I was well acquainted with the hassles of making a period picture—even one set in the recent past. I asked myself if the Natasha story was particular to the 1980s or if these characters and situations remained plausible today. I concluded they did. Once I decided that, I was glad for the cinematic and narrative opportunities that texting and the Internet provided. The way we communicate and the way we access pornography is very different today compared to the early 1990s.

However, very soon, my film will be dated. Canada is legalizing marijuana. So Mark’s sideline, biking around the northern Toronto suburbs delivering weed, is soon to be redundant.

ROS: What was it like to cast the film—to bring Mark, Natasha, and others to life?

DB: Like everyone, I had an image in my mind how the various characters should look. Once casting starts, however, you discover just how plastic that image is. A great actor will revise your sense of how a character can look—up to a point. Certainly with Mark and Natasha, the actors had to be able to credibly pass for teenagers.

As for Alex Ozerov (who plays Mark), I was aware of him from smaller roles in independent Canadian films. Once I saw his work and met him, he was the only actor I considered for the role. Natasha was the first film in which he played the lead and assumed the challenge of carrying a picture. I think he’s exceptional. And thanks in part to his role on The Americans, many other people are now discovering what a great talent he is.

ROS: The film’s final frame shows Mark gazing from the outside of his home through the window, occupying Natasha’s former position in their relationship. That profoundly evocative image is faithful to the story, but did you have any doubts about whether that choice would succeed as well as it did cinematically?

DB: I always imagined the film would end in the same way as the story. Even in the story, it is an imagistic ending. The film, however, doesn’t grant the viewer the benefit of Mark’s interior monologue, but I think what he feels is implicit in his action and informed by the audience’s experience of everything they’ve just seen. The ending is supposed allow the viewer space to infer the meaning. For viewers who like to be granted that kind of space—and I am one—I think it is satisfying. For viewers who want more explicit emotional instruction, it can be frustrating—though even most of these people, after asking for my interpretation, intuit more or less the correct meaning on their own.

ROS: Although you have written two more recent novels (The Free World and The Betrayers), not so long ago you described the stories gathered in your first book Natasha as “constituting the core of my imaginative life.” Could you say a little about why you still feel so deeply connected to those earlier works?

DB: That line from my journals refers to the curious little anecdotes and personal stories I’ve heard from my family and other Russian immigrants. That entry referred to my mother receiving the gift of a thermos from her friend, Anya. My mother and Anya are both widows and live in the same condominium building. Other Russian-Jewish widows also live in this building. My mother has known some of them for decades. They go for walks together. They meet for coffee. They know one another’s children and grandchildren. When my mother demurred about accepting the gift-thermos, Anya said: “What, I can’t even give you a thermos?” Much of my artistic sensibility can be derived from this exchange.

ROS: You have written movingly on the personal and professional impact of the great American writer Leonard Michaels (1933-2003), especially on what he taught you about embracing the inescapably personal nature of writing, not evading it. Can you say more about his influence?

DB: I recognized in Leonard Michaels a kindred spirit. His writing seemed like a more erudite and better-realized version of what I wanted to do. His sensibility had also been sufficiently informed by the class of gift-thermos stories. He’d found a means to transmute the humor and the pain of those stories though a highly condensed prose style. It set the standard to which I aspired. It still does.

ROS: There is a moment in “Minyan” when the narrator describes Shabbat morning services in an old shul: “Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences, I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history.” Is that just the narrator, or does that affinity for Jewish historic consciousness rather than traditional practice speak for you as well?

DB: Is it possible to write that line and not share the sentiment?

Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville. His latest book is Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature & Film.

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Interview: David Bezmozgis

Monday, September 29, 2014 | Permalink

by Donald Weber

Donald Weber recently spoke with David Bezmozgis about his new book, The Betrayers, which was published last week by Little, Brown and Company. Bezmozgis is also the author of the short story collection Natasha and the novel The Free World.

Donald Weber: I’m curious why you were drawn to the refusenik story based around Natan Sharansky: in light of your core themes of exile, displacement, and history (I'm thinking of the powerful vision of Jewish memory and history in a story like "Minyan"), how does The Betrayers continue or, perhaps, depart from what has engaged your work in the past?

David Bezmozgis: It's true that the original inspiration for the novel had to do with Natan Sharansky. In 2004, I'd been researching an obituary about Alexander Lerner, another prominent refusenik, when I came upon a curious and compelling detail: Lerner and Sharansky were both in the same circle of refuseniks in Moscow and they were both falsely accused of being CIA spies by another Jew, Sanya Lipavsky. As often happens, it is the curious exception that sparks the idea for a story. Put plainly, I was intrigued by the case of Lipavsky. I wondered what happened to him. I wondered what led him to commit this betrayal. I wondered too what might be the fate of a man who betrayed his own people for a country that subsequently ceased to exist. But deeper still—and this is where the idea accrued for me the necessary substance to sustain a novel—I wondered about the moral and constitutional difference between a man like Lipavsky and one like Sharansky. 

The question at the heart of the book is a moral one: Why is one person able to sacrifice everything for the sake of his or her principles while another is not? In other words, the central idea behind the book is one of virtue or goodness. The question is as old as philosophy. What does it mean to lead a virtuous life? I am conscious—I assume like most people—of my own moral behavior. And—perhaps again like many people—I wonder how I would fare if I was ever put to a truly difficult moral test. Would I be able to retain the clarity and the strength of my principles and convictions? Is there a principle for which I would be prepared to sacrifice my liberty and my life? As a writer approaching forty, and a father of children, I felt myself somehow, obliged to tackle this question. In the case of Kotler and Tankilevich, the main character of my novel, I found the framework in which to engage with it. And, in further answer to your question, in the case of these two men I also found the framework to continue the project I'd begun with the first two books: namely, telling the story of the Soviet Jews. 

Natasha and The Free World covered, in their own ways, the twentieth century; The Betrayers is deliberately as contemporary as I could make it. And whereas the first two books were concerned with the Soviet Jews' experiences in the lands of the Soviet Union, Europe, and North America, The Betrayers—though set largely in Crimea—concerns itself very much with Israel. Particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Jews of the Former Soviet Union have transformed Israel, and it is there that their greatest impact has been and continues to be felt. Since the question of Israel's future concerns me a great deal, I saw the opportunity to combine three of my main preoccupations: morality, Soviet Jews, and Zionism.

DW: About the figures of Boruch Kotler and Chaim Tankilevitch (modeled on Sharansky and Lipavsky), I wonder if you could comment on their respective “moral and constitutional difference[s]”? Each suffers the indignities of Jewish history; each betrays and is betrayed; and each is blackmailed—ironically—by fellow Jews. I wonder if Tankilevitch’s story is even more compelling than Kotler’s?

DB: The moral and constitutional differences between Kotler and Tankilevich have dictated the courses of their lives. Because Kotler did not compromise his principles, he suffered many years in the gulag and ultimately became a famous man and a Zionist hero. Because Tankilevich struck a bargain with the KGB and implicated his friend, he became a pariah. The novel asks—and posits an answer—as to why Kotler behaved one way and Tankilevich the other. That is what I mean by their moral and constitutional differences. Tankilevich defends his position. And perhaps many people would sympathize with him in the end. Kotler also defends his position, though, I suppose, one would hardly expect him to need to do so since he is precisely the sort of person society celebrates—someone like Gandhi or Mandela or Joan of Arc. But this is the crux of the novel: what explains a man like Kotler? And if we all are encouraged and aspire to be like him, are we actually capable of it — or are we, in fact, more like Tankilevich? I think this moral question is relevant to everyone but I think that Jews, particularly after the Holocaust, deliberate exceedingly upon it. Knowing what we know about those terrible years, we ask how we might have behaved in the most extreme circumstances. Would we have betrayed others to save our own lives? Or alternately, would we have had the courage and the strength of our convictions to risk our own and our family's safety to shelter another? I tried to answer this question as objectively and honestly as I could. And if the novel is provocative, it seems to me it is because of how it answers this question more than anything it says about Ukraine or Russia or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As for whether Tankilevich's story is more compelling than Kotler's, I couldn't say. However, I did want to create a situation in which both men find themselves in dire straits when fate or coincidence conspires to bring them together. In that sense, Kotler stumbles upon Tankilevich at a very decisive moment in his life. I don't know how compelling Tankilevich's story would be at most other times, but it's certainly compelling when Kotler meets him. And I suppose it's compelling because it distills the problems facing many Jewish communities in the Former Soviet Union—where communities that have endured for centuries are in the final stages of withering away. This situation is made somehow more melancholy and ironic since Crimea had—in the 1930s and again after World War II—been proposed as a possible Jewish state, an alternative to Israel.

DW: For me, Tankilevitch emerges as a figure out of a Malamud story, or a Frédéric Brenner photograph—one of those aged Jews dangling on the edge, a survivor managing, somehow, to hang on. I wonder if you could say a few words about the array of fascinating women characters in The Betrayers. As you draw them, the women deepen, complicate, our understanding of Kotler and Tankilevitch.

DB: Though I understand what you mean about Tankilevich being reminiscent of a Malamud character—I think, for instance, of the importunate DP Shimon Susskind from "The Last Mohican"— the Malamud character who influenced the book most was actually Yakov Bok from The Fixer. To no small extent, the principled and unyielding Bok was in my head when I was writing Kotler.

As for the women, I suppose they must inflect and complicate our understanding of Kotler and Tankilevich, but to me they aren't there to serve that purpose. To me they are their equals—interesting in their own right. They are variations on a sort of tough-minded woman who is commonly found among Russians and Russian Jews—though I believe she exists in all nations where women are saddled with innumerable burdens. I admire these women and enjoy trying to see the world through their eyes. I am never as clear-headed and practical as when I am trying to channel their voices. Compared to them, I seem immature to myself.

DW: I wonder how you imagine, or would like to imagine, your attentive Jewish American and Canadian readers to respond to your new novel?

DB: I would like Jewish American and Canadian readers to read the novel the same as any readers anywhere—with an open heart and an open mind. It is how I wrote the book—constantly challenging my own beliefs and feelings in the hopes of arriving at the truth. I don't expect everyone to agree with all of the novel's formulations and conclusions. I wouldn't say I agree with all of them myself. There are ideas the book puts forward as seemingly irrefutable that I am still turning over in my head—ideas, for instance, about an identifiable national character. With respect to Israel, the Middle East, and Ukraine, I tried, to the best of my abilities, to describe the current moment. If I have done my job well, the novel should enable readers to have a conversation about those places—if only within themselves. As for Kotler's being suspended in time and space at the end of the book—that reflected, for me, a painful admission or realization. In life, we would all like to find some respite, some relief—even, in our weaker moments, to entertain the illusion that there is such a thing as arrival, that we can stay or indefinitely forestall the worst. After some 2,000 years, Israel was supposed to serve this function for the Jews, to be the place where they could settle and find safety and wellbeing. I suppose, by the end of the novel, Kotler, by no means a naive man, confronts the unpleasant idea that for him and for his people, the uncertain journey continues.

Donald Weber is a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, and the author of Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture from Cahan to The Goldbergs (Indiana University Press, 2005). Read his review of David Bezmozgis's Natasha here and read his review of The Free World here.

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Reminder: Twitter Book Club Next Wednesday

Friday, June 10, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Need a good read for the weekend?

Check out David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, then join our online book discussion with the author Wednesday at lunchtime via #JBCBooks on Twitter!

Details here.