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Great Escapes

Six characters to spend the summer with

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When Lara Vapnyar was growing up in the Soviet Union, she dreamed of traveling into a great Russian novel and getting to know the characters. “Ideally,” she said, “I would have an affair.” Her top contender: Andrei Bolkonsky from War and Peace—”Who wouldn’t want to have an affair with him?” Nextbook asked a dozen contributors to imagine similar encounters: choose a character from the world of Jewish literature they’d like to meet. Here’s the first installment, with six more to come next month.

Steve Almond on Humboldt von Fleischer

I’m a fanatical Saul Bellow fan, and I’m probably saying this because I’m just rereading Humboldt’s Gift—if I were reading Augie March, I’d say Augie March, if I were reading Henderson the Rain King, I’d say Eugene Henderson—but I’m thinking about learned, wise, gorgeous, troubled, crazy Humboldt Von Fleischer, overcome by emotion, ridiculously eloquent. He’s a poet who publishes a book of ballads that are musical and witty and radiant, and then winds up beset by success. He’s like an intellectual or artistic rock-and-roll star—he’s gonna die young and leave a beautiful corpse. I imagine that I would just sort of be like Charlie Citrine, listening to Humboldt and these amazing gusts of eloquence and insight that he will launch into. I wouldn’t get a word in edgewise, but that’s fine—I get plenty of words in.

Lynn Harris on Davita Chandal

She was sort of a proto-feminist in my life. Her parents are active socialists, even her mother, who was raised Jewish, really looks down on religious expression. And Davita—she’s about 10—discovers the shul in her neighborhood when they move near Eastern Parkway, which is near where I live now. She starts going there and saying kaddish for her father, even though she’s just barely learning Hebrew, and really doesn’t know what she thinks about God. And she doesn’t get why girls can’t, why everyone’s shocked that she’s saying kaddish. I almost pictured the two of us, huddled in the back of shul, hatching a gentle but resonant proto-feminist plot. I didn’t even realize the point to which I think about Davita. Even when I go into a shul with a mechitza, sometimes I think, what would Davita do?

Jackie Hoffman on Gorgeous Teitelbaum

I’m playing Dr. Gorgeous Teitelbaum this summer at the Old Globe, so I’d like to hang with her to get a handle on the character, but in reading the play, she does seem rather obnoxious. She blathers on endlessly, mostly about herself. I think she’s one of those attempting-to-put-up-a-strong-veneer-but-very-fragile-underneath people. I might have been chosen because she is the most comic-tragic character in the play, I know how to handle a show-stealing part, and no one else would be enough of a schmuck to leave town for ten weeks for so little money. I would definitely take her to Daffy’s, Loehmann’s, and Filene’s, because she wants designer stuff but isn’t willing to pay the cost.

Ann Marlowe on Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda‘s interesting to me, simply in that he seems like a full human being before he’s a Jew. If he were a contemporary character there would be all sorts of signs of his Jewishness—I guess it’s the kvetchy and neurotic part I find annoying—but there’s a sense that he’s just a normal guy who happens to discover that he has an additional burden to deal with. And it was definitely a burden at that time. There’s a sense that these are ghetto Jews, that they’re timid, they’re oppressed, they’re poor. They’re more like black characters in American fiction 50 years ago, but one has the feeling that their problems are the result of discrimination. I guess what I like in 19th-century fiction often is that characters are trying to make their way in the world, whereas in a lot of contemporary American fiction, people hardly seem to engage with their jobs.

Jonathan Ames on Arthur Fidelman

Fidelman was a nutty artist living in Rome in the 50s, back when Europe was less expensive, and he had this love affair with an Italian woman. There’s a great description of his appreciation of his lover’s fragrant armpit. I very much related, just being adrift and confused in the world. It would be fun to be with him in Rome and drink wine and have no money.

Lara Vapnyar on Sasha

I’m afraid the book I have in mind, The Never-Ending Path, by Alexandra Brushteyn, is unknown in the U.S., about a Jewish girl growing up in tsarist Russia. When I was 10 or 12, I identified with the character completely. She’s very straightforward, very unpretentious, and she has a great sense of humor. One of the reasons the book was published was that she becomes a revolutionary and a great supporter of the Soviet state. But we tended to ignore this part and concentrate on her depiction of her life.

My favorite part was about how difficult it was for a Jewish girl to be accepted into good schools in Russia—that there were two types of entrance exams, one for gentile kids, and a much more difficult one for Jewish kids. I didn’t even try. You had to be either a genius or have some incredible connections—or better both.

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Tell us below about a character you’d want to hang out with.

Stephen Vider last wrote about Down in the Valley.

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Great Escapes

Six characters to spend the summer with

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