Life on Sandpaper

Yoram Kaniuk; Antho­ny Berris, trans.
  • Review
By – August 31, 2011
While liv­ing in the Unit­ed States in the 1950’s Yoram Kaniuk met an angry, embit­tered William Saroy­an. It was a onesided con­ver­sa­tion where the old­er writer, a one-time Pulitzer Prize win­ner, most­ly read aloud from his mem­oir My Name is Aram. Here was an elder­ly man sit­ting and recit­ing— or guess­ing at — the fruits of his youth,” in Kaniuk’s descrip­tion. In 2003, Kaniuk, then 73, took a turn at recall­ing his own youth in a 400-page cataract of words about that event-filled time of his life, trans­lat­ed now into this auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el.

Kaniuk arrived in New York by way of Paris, an aspir­ing artist fresh from fight­ing in Israel’s War of Inde­pen­dence, and imme­di­ate­ly fell in love with the city, espe­cial­ly its jazz scene. He must have had enor­mous charm, as he does today, since he imme­di­ate­ly became friend­ly with artists, writ­ers, and musi­cians like Lar­ry Rivers, James Agee, Char­lie Park­er (whose por­trait he paint­ed), Ben Web­ster, Max Roach, Lester Young, Bud Pow­ell, Bil­lie Hol­i­day (who sang a song in his hon­or called Yo’s Blues”), and Bil­ly Stray­horn. 

The author’s cir­cle of per­son­al friends could pop­u­late sev­er­al nov­els. There’s Pat, the South­ern belle whose black boyfriend was lynched in Alaba­ma and who in Man­hat­tan became the sex slave of a lacon­ic Chi­nese man. Boris, a Russ­ian Jew who played chess with Stal­in and lat­er worked at Los Alam­os, had a daugh­ter who became a nun, revived a con­vent in Spain, was giv­en an audi­ence with the Pope, then aban­doned holy orders, sold ille­gal drugs, and renounced chasti­ty in no uncer­tain terms. Kaniuk’s Israeli friend Oved, deter­mined to get rich quick, took his friends on a wild road trip to Guatemala, stayed for forty years, became an arms mer­chant, and dis­cov­ered a lost Mayan city. 

Back in New York Kaniuk encoun­tered an out­landish num­ber of cul­tur­al giants. He knew Dylan Thomas from the Cedar Tav­ern in Green­wich Vil­lage; Yul Bryn­ner spoke to him in Russ­ian. Bob Fos­se asked Kaniuk to rec­om­mend a dancer and he sug­gest­ed Shirley MacLaine. He was friend­ly enough with Mar­lon Bran­do that one of his paint­ings hung over the actor’s bed. Kaniuk him­self appeared on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen” on NBC. He danced with Gin­ger Rogers and watched Stan­ley Kubrick edit his first fea­ture film. James Dean watched him paint. Jerome Rob­bins liked him and bought ten of Kaniuk’s paint­ings; Gwen Ver­don com­mis­sioned him to paint her. Pete Seeger helped inau­gu­rate a hum­mus restau­rant he opened with some friends. Per­haps not every detail hap­pened exact­ly as report­ed; in an Author’s Note Kaniuk con­cedes that it isn’t entire­ly incor­rect to call this book a work of fic­tion.” But it must have been a dizzy­ing life. 

Though he was known as a painter in New York, he real­ized ear­ly that mod­ern paint­ing is not an art through which you can real­ly touch life or touch the hell with­in us or touch for­give­ness or redemp­tion, and paint­ing like Dür­er or Rem­brandt is no longer pos­si­ble, so I began hat­ing paint­ings.” His doubts about paint­ing grew so strong that he became deter­mined to be a writer instead. He returned to Israel in 1960 after his first nov­el was pub­lished by the new imprint Atheneum. 

Susan Son­tag famous­ly remarked that Yoram Kaniuk was one of the three best nov­el­ists she had encoun­tered in trans­la­tion (the oth­er two are Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez and Peter Hand­ke). Yet only a hand­ful of his books are avail­able in Eng­lish, not includ­ing his mem­oir of the War of Inde­pen­dence called (“1948”) which made a sen­sa­tion last year in Israel. This ear­li­er auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal work, in a metic­u­lous and pen­e­trat­ing trans­la­tion by Antho­ny Berris, is a won­der­ful intro­duc­tion to a writer who greets all of life’s adven­tures with open arms.

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