Max Gross’s debut novel, The Lost Shtetl, imagines a Polish shtetl called Kreskol which is so isolated and remote from the world that it escapes the Holocaust, Communism, and innovations like electricity or indoor plumbing. Bob Goldfarb spoke with the author about watershed moments in history, the nature of change, and his literary influences.
Bob Goldfarb: I’m struck by the fact that you’ve published nonfiction before, but your first venture into fiction is a four-hundred page novel! It seems like quite a leap.
Max Gross: There actually were other novels that, in Philip Roth’s phrase, were “buried alive.” I wrote a novella in my twenties about an Orthodox Jewish vampire. Blood is verboten in Judaism, so it’s a neurotic Jewish vampire. At the time I didn’t think it was so bad; so I submitted it to a couple of graduate MFA programs. However, I didn’t get in anywhere. Looking at it again recently I accept it was bad — but not that bad. However, it would need a lot more work, and it was too magical a premise.
One of the things I thought was important in The Lost Shtetl was that it be grounded in a kind of reality — maybe a reality that’s far-fetched, but still possible. Everything has an explanation. There are no leaps to the supernatural.
BG: The book has received a lot of very favorable attention. For a first-time novelist that must be especially gratifying. Many novelists don’t hit their stride until they’re much farther along. Does that motivate you to try another one?
MG: I’m actually already working on the next one! I’m also very far along on a collection of stories — which there’s no market for. I’m only invigorated.
BG: I’ve read that you’ve always been interested in the Holocaust, and I wondered what about it specifically intrigued you.
MG: I believe history is filled with watershed moments, and the Holocaust was one of those moments. It meant something different to be a Jew after that. It also meant something different to be a Christian. And a human being. It was the main watershed of the modern historical period.
In terms of its absence in so much of the book, it makes the novel a kind of ghost story. There’s something missing, but it’s hovering above you. Not knowing this “secret” about all of mankind, I hope, makes this book more poignant.
BG: Seeing the Holocaust as a watershed event in human history is quite different from seeing it as a particular place, time, and series of events. You take a wide-angle view, and what sounds like a simple premise turns out to have a lot of ramifications.
Any one of them could be a book in itself; there’s the encounters with modernity, and there are the relationships between Jews and Christians. There are also the many motives of human beings: some want to make money; some like to control others; some are kind; some are abusive. Yet, in a way, it’s also a Jewish joke: when you have a shtetl you’re going to have two rabbis, with followers who won’t ever set foot in the other rabbi’s shul.
There’s also the question of what change means — is it good or bad? That points to the deep truth that all people don’t respond to all events in the same way. Some resist change, others go with the flow.
MG: I’m happy that that came across because those are the things I’ve been trying to telegraph. I myself have great ambivalence about change and modernity. In The Magnificent Ambersons theJoseph Cotton character — who is one of the first inventors of automobiles — is told very rudely by Tim Holt that automobiles are a useless nuisance. In one of the most poignant speeches in cinema, Cotton agrees that they come with real costs and that it might have been better if they had never been invented. The reality is that it’s both a good thing and a bad thing.
About the Jewish joke — it’s always interesting to deconstruct a joke. Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad, is basically a joke. The title character is a coward who deserts his ship. What makes it a great piece of literature is how that joke is unpacked, explicated and turned into a story of shame, redemption, and heroism.
As for the multiple ramifications of the premise, I did construct all the chapters to be set pieces, like individual short stories each with a different topic. That was always an intention of mine, though most people don’t pick up on that.
I believe history is filled with watershed moments, and the Holocaust was one of those moments. It meant something different to be a Jew after that.
BG: You obviously love literature, and I wonder if you’re a fan of Dickens. He has so many orphan characters who are expelled from small towns, go into the big city, have misadventures, and in the end they make their way. Your character Yankel seems like a Dickensian boy.
MG: My copy of David Copperfield is right here somewhere! Dickens is one of my three or four favorite writers of all time. I loved David Copperfield so much that I cried when I finished reading it. There’s so much pathos there, and it’s so funny — his writing is just so clever and witty. I’m definitely a Dickens groupie.
When I started the first chapter of my book I thought of it as like a Bashevis Singer story. The Yankel chapter, I thought, was my Dickens story.
BG: It’s very like a Dickens story because it’s so picaresque. Yankel finds himself in so many bizarre settings and, like a Dickens character, he blithely fits into the situations where he finds himself. His adaptability is striking.
You make a passing reference in the novel to Brigadoon. There’s a certain resemblance: it’s a town which disappears, and then accidentally encounters modernity. The difference is that in Brigadoon they’re trying to escape the outside world, through a spell which will work only so long as no one leaves. In the shtetl Kreskol, on the other hand, the story begins when someone leaves.
MG: It’s mentioned at the mental hospital when they realize that Kreskol is real, and they call it a “Yiddish Brigadoon.” I actually use the term a “Yiddish Brigadoon” a lot to explain to people what The Lost Shtetl is about. It seems like a good shorthand descriptor. But I must confess, I haven’t seen Brigadoon since I was a kid.
BG: That episode, when Yankel is in the mental hospital, struck me as a kind of parable of how people are sometimes labeled “crazy” when they don’t fit a preconceived notion of what’s right or what’s normal. It seems very plausible that someone telling Yankel’s story would be considered delusional.
MG: I put him in the mental hospital because I thought that it was the most likely thing that would happen in that particular situation. But one of the main themes of this book is hoaxes, and the question of what is objective truth. The reaction to facts — and the kind of relativism towards truth today — is something I find very disturbing.
BG: People reject incontrovertible facts simply by saying “that couldn’t have happened.” They just don’t want to believe it. There’s a larger truth you portray: that unwanted news makes people suspicious, and then angry, because they don’t want that disruption to their world.
MG: I think what’s happening now in America, and in the world writ large. It’s part of an old pattern. There’s a very human desire to reject truths in favor of magical thinking, or just lies. It’s a part of modernity that I had in mind when I was writing this book.
BG: There’s an episode in the book where journalists report on the discovery of the shtetl. You yourself are a journalist, and I wonder if there was a touch of satire there, imagining how they would fall back on certain tropes as they try to explain what happened.
It’s easy to think of the lost shtetl existing in a parallel universe, an unreal place. Leonid’s back story, as a Holocaust survivor, tells us that this is the real world, our world, grounded in reality — and the events of this story are not impossible.
MG: That was definitely the most realistic part of the book, lampooning my profession! There’s a very “circus” atmosphere around journalism today. One of the characters I found the most loathsome, yet whom I admire, is the one who tracks down Pesha by doing the hard work that’s necessary in journalism. He’s a rat — but a competent, wily rat.
BG: You humanize journalists through the reporter, Karol, who sheltered Yankel in spite of being told that his job was just to report the story.
MG: Yankel and Pesha are my two favorite characters in this book, but Karol the Polish cameraman is my other favorite. I really loved him.
BG: The character of Leonid Spektor is a fascinating secondary character. His appearance changes the tenor of the story a bit and gives a reality check. It’s easy to think of the lost shtetl existing in a parallel universe, an unreal place. Leonid’s back story, as a Holocaust survivor, tells us that this is the real world, our world, grounded in reality — and the events of this story are not impossible.
MG: It’s funny — when the book went out to publishers, he was the stumbling block. Some thought that he took us too far out of the story. I’ll confess that in the first draft of the book, Spektor wasn’t in it. My esteemed mother, who is an editor, said to me when she read that draft, “Max, you wrote a book about the Holocaust without the Holocaust in it.” Meaning: I better talk about the Holocaust. That was the single biggest change the story underwent before it went out in the world. Spektor was an important catalyst in my mind.
BG: You’ve touched on the idea of watershed moments. I wonder how you perceive the current time in the flow of history. The COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of China, and U.S. domestic politics suggest that this is another watershed moment. Do you have thoughts about that?
MG: I’ve thought about that a lot. So many traditions have been upended in the past few years — ideas about the nation-state, alliances, and our ability to do things. To take care of our citizens during the crisis. The answers that we’ve seen in the last few years have not been especially hopeful, but I believe the future is not yet written, and we have the capacity to shift. And it’s always possible for things to get better. I did want this book to speak to this moment and to current anxieties. I also believe that they’re not final. Nothing is.