The Books Interview: Shalom Auslander

Solomon Kugel, the protagonist of your debut novel, Hope: a Tragedy, is a Jewish New Yorker who has moved upstate. You, too, have moved to the country, haven’t you?
I’ve moved to the country but there’s nowhere to walk after dinner. Your idea of nature is postcards, nice trees, but it’s fucking violent. I’m on a cliff and the winds from November to March just blast at the house relentlessly. Animals, bears, even the deer, are like fucking gang members where
I live. You think, “Oh, it’s deer,” and then they look at you and you think, “This thing is going to kill me if I go near the faun.”

Do you miss the city?
No, I left in order to write. I just felt like I needed to hear myself. I wanted to find out where my head would go without anything else pushing it. I went to the Holocaust, actually. I should probably move back.

You went not just to the Holocaust but to Anne Frank, who turns out to be hiding in Kugel’s attic. Was Philip Roth’s treatment of Frank in The Ghost Writer an influence?
I’ve never read it. I’ve read Sabbath’s Theatre and a bit of Portnoy’s Complaint. One reviewer described Hope as being like “Roth without the libido”.
Which makes me very insecure.

So you didn’t have Roth in mind when you thought, “I’m going to bring Anne Frank into this”?
No one mentioned it to me until the book was in galley form. I was having lunch with the editor of a Jewish literary website and she said, “So is this a comment on Roth?” And I just said, “What are you talking about?” She was like, “You know, in his book where Anne Frank is alive.” My response was: “You have to be fucking kidding me.” When my memoir Foreskin’s Lament came out, it was the same: “Oh, so you’re intentionally doing Portnoy’s Complaint?” And in my head I was like, “If anything, it was Angela’s Ashes.”

Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre is a provocation, of sorts, which Hope is, too.
It’s a common question: “Did you ever think someone would be upset by this?” The truth is, you don’t. Pretty much the job description for a novelist is not giving a shit. But there’s been a global pandemic of shit-giving over the past 20 or 30 years. Roth probably stood out because he didn’t care.

Other Jewish-American writers of your generation – Jonathan Safran Foer, say, or Michael Chabon – seem to share some of your preoccupations with history with a capital “H”. Do you feel an affinity with them?
No. Honestly, I don’t (and I didn’t when I was working on it) think of this as a Jewish book. The choice of Anne Frank was a risky one, but the reality is that, for me, it was the symbol of man’s inhumanity to man. But the notion wasn’t “boy, let’s discuss the Holocaust”.

It’s a blazingly funny book. What about the Jewish-American comic tradition? Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen . . .
The comedian I like best is not Jewish; it’s Richard Pryor – then probably Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. I’ve always liked dark humour. Dr Strangelove was the first movie I remember seeing and going, “Oh wow!” I’d never seen that before – full-on embracing of nuclear holocaust and having a laugh at it.

Then Joseph Heller did that in Catch-22, and to a certain degree Flannery O’Connor does it. I don’t know that this attitude comes from anything particularly Jewish.

It’s often said that Judaism is a distinctively disputatious religion. But, having grown up Orthodox, you don’t buy that, do you?
Certain people in the community take pride in how great it is that we ask questions, but it’s a fixed game. It’s like knowing the end of your story before beginning it, and then patting yourself on the back for writing freely. It’s just not true. There’s never a page beginning: “And so, there is no God.”

It’s obsessive compulsion masquerading as intellectual rigour. It’s like an OCD guy walking out of his house, flicking on the lights five times, licking the doorknob, clicking the locks, unclicking the locks and then saying, “Wow, I’m really on top of shit today.” Just because you’ve got your craziness worked out . . .

Shalom Auslander’s “Hope: a Tragedy” is published by Picador (£16.99)