Interview: Benjamin Stein

Benjamin Stein’s second novel, The Canvas, one of the more explosive novels recently published in contemporary Germany, is now available in the U.S. (notably translated by WNYC’s Brian Zumhagen). The story of two men, a psychoanalyst and  writer, and their troubled relationship to a writer named Minsky, the author of a fabricated Holocaust memoir, The Canvas is loosely based on the actual story of Binjamin Wilkomirski and his own fabricated Holocaust memoir. Unlike anything I have read before, The Canvas even looks like no other book. Two narrators, Amnon Zichroni and Jan Wechsler, begin their tales at either end – appropriately, there are two nearly identical covers – and meet for the inevitable showdown smack in the middle of the book, where a strange sort of violence ensues. Schticky? A gimmick? You’ll have to look elsewhere. The novel is deeply concerned with religious orthodoxy, memory, identity, and the conscious and unconscious constructions of each. There are two sides to this story, and whose testimony you first listen to counts. I met Stein at his reading at NYU’s Deutsches House, where we started our conversation. We continued our talk that next afternoon at The Housing Works Bookstore Café over macaroni and cheese, coffee, and pumpkin bread, and then via email after he returned home to Munich.    

–Scott Cheshire

 

INTERVIEWER

One of the things I admire about The Canvas is how particular this world is of Orthodox Judaism. I am not of this realm at all – and yet the book becomes all the more universal because of its particularity.

 

BENJAMIN STEIN

That is interesting, no? But this is something literature, especially poetry can achieve. It tries to express something very particular, but in a way that it becomes universal. I cannot really tell you how to do it, but I think it’s important to go out and find the right details. I was speaking just today with a group of German students from Yale. And one asked me: How do you make sure not to write platitudes? This, I thought, was very hard to answer. And yet there is one very easy way, for me. Immerse yourself in your stories and characters. Visit the places you’re writing about. This is something I like to do when I am planning a book. I always write in first person, and so I always feel the need to go on tour, to visit the places where a story takes place. The interesting thing is that when you go on tour, you find the very places where everything happens, you meet people that eventually become part of the narration or even tell you stories your characters may be involved in. For instance, before writing The Canvas I went to Israel with the strict agenda to find the right mikvah.

 

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell me about the mikvah and its traditional ritual use, for those who don’t know?

 

BENJAMIN STEIN

A mikvah is a pool of natural water, for example from rain or a well. A river or the sea can serve as a mikvah, too. The idea is to transform a person or even a thing like a vessel by immersing it completely in the “living waters.” The immersion marks the transition from one spiritual state to another: the impure becomes pure, an adept convert turns into a Jew, etc. It’s a mere spiritual concept: By performing an act we change our conception of a particular part of reality. And since our conception changes the reality can change as well. As a scientist you may call this constructivism, but it’s as well a basic mystical concept, a way to bring magic into existence. Well, at least it would be nice if it worked that way.

 

INTERVIEWER

The mikvah is a powerful image, because it makes sense given the religious context but metaphorically it resonates on so many levels.

 

BENJAMIN STEIN

I wanted to write about the idea of leaving a life behind. This way I had the chance to use the same motifs for both narrators. I wanted a mirroring effect. I also knew the book would have 22 chapters for mystical reasons, since the Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 letters. And so there are now eleven chapters on each side. Of course, there are always things you didn’t plan ahead or even think about and then you have to change the plan. For instance, it was never the plan to talk about the East German experience at all. Three quarters of the book were finished. Only the second half of Wechsler remained. And then I was meeting with my agent, we were driving through Berlin, and she asked me what it was like to live as a Jew in the GDR. I was immediately upset, filled with memories, and said I didn’t want to talk about it at all. But she kept asking, and I started raging. It was really ridiculous. And so she said you need to write about this! I said I need at least another twenty years before I can calm down enough. My heart was racing. I said it was impossible to write about. And she just said that’s a pity. So when I went home to Munich I thought: It’s already been fifteen years, maybe it is really time to write about it. The funny detail is the second half of Wechsler’s story had a lot of “narrative holes.” Realizing this fact I instantly knew this part of the character’s childhood experience was missing. I decided to weave two biographies into one, Wechsler’s two lives – the one he pretends to have lived and the one that he turns out to have lived, I mean, depending on which narration you trust.

 

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of holes in the story, the center of the book, but also technically the end, wherein Zichroni and Wechsler meet at the mikvah is sort of like the eye of a storm. Everything else seems to swirl around it, and yet we don’t actually get to witness what happens. Did you always know the moment would be so ambiguous?

 

BENJAMIN STEIN

Maybe this is a spoiler but I can tell you this: Zichroni is so angry with Wechsler that he wants to kill him. But he decides to do something else. This is why he takes off his gloves. He is taking away Wechsler’s memory. Like in Greek tragedy, he is put into the very situation he put Minsky in. Intellectually he cannot understand his own experience and so now he is doomed to relive it.

 

INTERVIEWER

And yet there is a moment in the book that equates stealing someone’s memories with murder.

 

BENJAMIN STEIN

Exactly. Stealing a person’s identity is much like destroying this person’s life. So it really can be read both ways.

 

INTERVIEWER

The book seems chiefly concerned with memory, identity, and how identity is largely formed by memory. Is this an especially German theme?

 

BENJAMIN STEIN

I don’t think so. I’d rather suppose it’s a very Jewish topic. The problems that came along with assimilation and persecution, the brutal destruction of families and thus the abrupt ending of family narrations just to be replaced by mostly untold stories about camps, murder and murderers – these problems are like the perfect soil to grow substantial identity problems for the next generations. Here you have it: confusion about identity may be a dominant Jewish problem, but of course it can and does happen to all of us. You can tell the Jewish story in order to portray a general human problem.

 

INTERVIEWER

I think American readers have a very difficult relationship to this question. We are as a people largely attracted to the memoir and its very simplistic notion of identifiable truth and memory. How do you feel about the memoir as a form?

 

BENJAMIN STEIN

Memoirs are piles of lies. Well, let me phrase it less drastically: Every written memoir is carefully shaped. It presents the retouched version of events in a way that best illustrates the point the writer is trying to make. No more, no less. Just ask your family members for their accounts of an event they all witnessed some years ago. You get as many story versions as you have narrators. This is absolutely no problem. Just don’t think that anybody would recall something like an objective truth from memory.

 

INTERVIEWER

The physical book is unique, and appropriately so, given its theme. But it also happens to make an indirect argument for the physical book. Were you thinking of the digital book at all when writing, and how this book demands physicality?

 

BENJAMIN STEIN

I just wanted to write one last book that works in its entire structure only as a printed book. I like printed books. They may disappear. But I wanted to show that the medium of the printed book can be more than just a different container type for text. With The Canvas the book as a book is part of the artistic idea.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: