Earlier this week, Alan Lelchuk wrote about researching Raoul Wallenberg across the world and meeting Daniel Pagliansky, Wallenberg’s KGB interrogator. Lelchuk is the author of the acclaimed novels, American Mischief, Miriam at Thirty-Four, Shrinking, Miriam in Her Forties,Playing the Game, Brooklyn Boy, Ziff: a Life?, and On Home Ground. His most recent book is Searching for Wallenberg, and he has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
In 1956 Meyer Levin wrote Compulsion, a novel about two young thrill killers in Chicago, based on the real life murderers Leopold and Loeb. Levin knew the local story well of the two young men, and observed the trial as a journalist. A popular movie was made from the novel, and Compulsion became the first of what we have named “docu-novels.” This was followed in 1966 by the even more popular In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, which the author considered a non-fiction novel. (Again another Hollywood movie was made from the very realistic book.) This concerned a quadruple murder in Kansas by two killers, and Capote went out to Kansas (with Harper Lee) where they conducted long research, and produced a true crime story that was emphatically fact-based. Next, in 1979, came Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song about Gary Gilmore, a murderer in Utah, a work of some 900 pages based on a some 15,000 interviews done with Gilmore in the last 9 months of his stay on Death Row. Here, very often Mailer employed Gilmore’s actual words from those interviews for his novel. In those books, the facts ruled the day.
Searching for Wallenberg has some of the docu in the novel, but I would prefer to call it a hybrid work. Yes, there is actual documentation it, and also some of Wallenberg’s own words from his writings. The several known historical facts here are documented clearly, based on the reality, as we know it, of chaotic Budapest 1944 – 45, and Lybianka Prison, Moscow 1945 – 47. And yes, too, I researched much of the era, especially the climate surrounding the figure of Wallenberg. But what remained, always at the center, was mystery — as in the gaps of history, the gaps in Raoul the man. Hence much of my novelistic journey was consumed by filling in those gaps with a credible, imagined reality. With scenes that were constructed from a known basis, a context of empirical reality — such as, Wallenberg coming from a very rich Swedish family, Wallenberg saving approximately 17,000 thousands Jews directly in Budapest in 1944 – 45, Wallenberg the Russian prisoner for two whole years in Moscow’s Lybianka prison, Wallenberg the man having no record of any real girlfriends in Michigan or Budapest, or Stockholm for that matter. So therefore my task was to invent scenes that revealed the possible truths behind the facts that we did have, and to create and dramatize the history that we didn’t have. From the empirical to the imagined. Whereas in the docu-novels cited above, the task was to fictionalize those facts in order to bring out the known facts more emphatically, mine was a bit more risky, I’d say, but for different and necessary reasons. And let me add to the hybrid nature by pointing to the making of history itself by my seeing the interrogator Pagliansky and recording that scene in the novel.
So what we have here is layer upon layer of material, both real and imagined, in the service of …one mystery on top of another. No need for me to tidy it all up for the reader, but rather only present the layers for him or her to judge, interpret, value. In the end, I hoped for an internal organic mystery, enticing and rewarding, which the reader might investigate alongside me, and my fictional counterpart Emmanuel Gellerman, a partner detective, you might say, in the long and unfinished and unfolding journey.
Alan Lelchuk’s short fiction has appeared in such publications as Transatlantic, The Atlantic, Modern Occasions,The Boston Globe Magazine, and Partisan Review. He is an editor at Steerforth Press and teaches at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Read more about him here.Searching for Wallenberg: A Novel
- Essays: Writers on Their Research
- Reading List: Historical Fiction
- His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg by Louise Borden
Alan Lelchuk is a novelist and professor who was born and grew up in Brooklyn, NY. He received his BA in World Literature from Brooklyn College in 1960 and studied at University College, London in 1962 – 63, receiving his MA in 1963 and PhD in 1965, both in English from Stanford University. He is a co-founder of Steerforth Press, has taught at Brandeis University and Amherst College, and since 1985 has been on the faculty of Dartmouth College.