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Be My Knife

A Hebrew professor relies on the sharp edge of language to dissect male failure

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In The Task of This Translator, his debut collection of stories, Todd Hasak-Lowy sets the mundane interactions of everyday life against tragic backdrops. In the opening story, set at Yad Vashem, two men do battle over pastry. Another juxtaposes the loss of a man’s billfold with an exchange of nuclear bombs—and the narrator interjects, wondering whether the two plots belong in the same story. In all the tales, Hasak-Lowy, who teaches Hebrew language and literature at the University of Florida, explores the peculiarities of language while examining how characters undo themselves.

As a tenure-track professor, you must spend a lot of time on academic writing. Does that dovetail with your fiction?

The way the narrative voice of the stories is authoritative is borrowed from academic writing, but it’s taking the academic voice and forcing it to talk about things it wouldn’t necessarily talk about. One of the hardest things about academic writing is that you have to say what you mean over and over again, which feels unnatural after a while—it’s not ironic. In the stories I take the same language and the same voice to say things I don’t mean, to rub it against itself. Writing stories is an outlet.

What do you mean “rub it against itself?”

To be very exacting, but also somewhat neutral or objective or disinterested and then to talk about things in which that disinterest is revealed to be ridiculous. In the story about Yad Vashem I have two characters set against a place of unspeakable horror, but the voice doesn’t really talk about it in that way. The title is “On the Grounds of the Complex Commemorating the Nazis’ Treatment of the Jews” and the repetition of that phrase throughout is accurate but at once profoundly inappropriate. The academic voice is exacting to a fault and it’s showing how that is a fault.

What about the characters who come to blows in that story—does their interaction reflect how Jews see themselves in Israel as opposed to in America?

Usually I don’t work at all on the Holocaust, which is intentional because to the extent that it can be overworked, it is. But I wrote this book over seven or eight years, and when I wrote that one story I was trying to write about the impossibility of saying anything intelligent about the Holocaust. That’s why the story focuses on naming: the two guys aren’t named, the place is not named, the Holocaust is not named.

Jews from here on out are defined against the Holocaust—even if you didn’t have family that were involved, you’re implicated as a survivor or as not a survivor or as a potential victim. So, one guy in that story is involved because he works there, the other guy because he used the Holocaust as a way to impress his girlfriend by learning more about being Jewish. When Jews learn about what it means to be Jewish it means they either learn about Israel or the Holocaust—and he chooses to learn about the Holocaust.

Why did you make it the first story in the collection?

I wanted to state my case early on, make an artistic statement, make the first paragraph arresting. That story gets people’s attention.

Does your study of Hebrew literature connect to your fiction—is that where you get the determinedly ironic voice of your narrators?

Though there’s plenty of irony in Hebrew fiction, the aspect that most appeals to me is not the irony but the intensity, the sense that the stakes are high. That’s not just because the reality they are writing in is so much more dramatic and intense than life in the United States. Literature in the emergence of the Israeli state was not viewed as an ornamental feature. It was the place where ideology and culture were articulated. I’d like to take the irony of a Rick Moody or a David Foster Wallace and combine that with the sense that our situation is urgent. I write about particular individuals, but individuals with a connection to historical events or global crises.

And yet, a lot of reviewers have commented on the humor in this collection.

Trying to be funny is my default mode, how I communicate. I sit in department meetings and it’s all I can do not to make jokes. But most people who have a tendency to try to be funny are really trying to do something else. Look at the comic actors who cross over into serious drama—they’re trying to be funny about something that is totally not funny to them.

Trying to write about happier things doesn’t interest me. To write is to investigate things I might not be able to investigate otherwise. I am in a good marriage, I have two daughters, my life is good. I’m interested in writing about the other side of that.

Which is what?

Failure, I guess. Most of my characters are really flawed, but in a way that isn’t rare, that’s common. For whatever reason, characters at different moments of failure fascinate me. In the story “The End of Larry’s Wallet” I wanted to have two story lines that didn’t meet, and the only way to make Larry’s part of the story compelling was to invoke the horribleness of his life. I wanted to expose that—to say, this is one of the ways that a man, a husband or a father, can totally blow it—out of laziness and selfishness but laziness and selfishness that are complicated and that he can’t 100-percent control.

David Grossman says we touch the same wounds when we write. Even if the details or settings or characters of the stories change, some underlying thing will manifest itself again and again. For me they are trying to make sense of male failure and male pain.

Have you ever tried writing in Hebrew?

At this point there’s no way. I once tried a paragraph in Hebrew—my Hebrew is very good but not good enough. I did spend a lot of time in graduate school reading Hebrew and it made me appreciate English. If you’re going to write literary fiction, I think it’s helpful to be overly conscious of language, to be conscious of language as something that is not transparent or simply referential. The best way to do that is to spend a lot of time in another language.

What do you mean by referential and not just transparent?

When you only know one language, you can read post-structuralist work on linguistics and know that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. But when you learn another language you realize that language is only one very particular way to talk about the world. Hebrew is very different from English—not just grammatically but the rhythm, the sound, and the relationships between words. My style is more-is-more as opposed to less-is-more. English lends itself to those kinds of accumulations.

Where would you like to see your work go in the future?

I’m trying to not have it be so tragically tongue-in-cheek—but I don’t know if writing another way would work for me. One of the things for me in terms of using language is I can only get to true artistry or whatever you want to call it by going roundabout, by being ridiculous or absurd or obsessively ironic. To me those are not mutually exclusive. I’m trying to write a novel now, which is hard because there are things I do in stories to avoid the conventions of fiction that I can’t do in something that’s more than 200 pages.

I have trouble writing dialogue, it’s as if the characters are aware that they are being forced to talk. In the story called “The Interview” it’s deliberate—both characters are mocking how they have been forced to talk, as if they know they are fictional characters. But the things I’m interested in aren’t visible when you’re watching two people talk at a restaurant. I’m more interested in my characters’ interior worlds and thoughts than in what they do.

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Be My Knife

A Hebrew professor relies on the sharp edge of language to dissect male failure

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