April 26, 2012
Jeffrey Lewis is the author of Meritocracy: A Love Story (2005), Theme Song for an Old Show (2007), The Conference of the Birds (2007), and Adam the King (2008). He has won a string of awards, including the Independent Publishers Gold Medal for Literary Fiction for his novels, and two Emmy Awards and the Writer’s Guild Award for his work as a writer and producer on the critically acclaimed television series, Hill Street Blues.
Lewis’ new novel, Berlin Cantata, is set in a newly reunited Berlin shortly after the fall of the Wall. American-born Holly Anholt is fascinated by a film clip of her parents, blissfully happy at their house on a lake near Berlin. The house, we learn, is owned successively by Jews, Nazis, and Communists. Returning to Berlin to recover her family’s property, Holly falls in love with a German journalist who is investigating the story of a gay Jewish man who claims to have been a Resistance hero in Berlin’s underground. The hero has teamed with a camp survivor who has made a fortune rebuilding a devastated Berlin from the rubble. As Holly becomes close to the hero, defending him to the journalist, a string is pulled, and the hero’s story unravels. Secrets and surprises emerge. Lewis employs thirteen different voices to tell an astonishing story that raises unsettling questions about cultural and personal identity, desire across time, conspiracies of silence, exile and return, and problematizing the notion of home itself. Berlin Cantata is a brilliantly conducted work by a master storyteller.
Jeffrey Lewis, welcome to The Nervous Breakdown.
I’m interested in your choice of structure for this novel. What challenges did you face employing polyphonic voices and unreliable narrators? In the end, is this the only way the story could be told? What structures did you jettison along the way, and why?
It was the only way the story could be told by me. Believe me, I tried every other way first. This seems to be typical of the way I work. More out of desperation than orderly process. Everything fails, then one day one more bright idea surfaces and I try it out. Chief reasons other structures didn’t work: I couldn’t seem to get at the whole story; and, in particular concerning the option of using a conventional third person omniscient narrator, I as usual couldn’t find a voice that I liked or believed.
As for the challenges of so many voices: of course, avoiding confusing people. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded at this or not. Some people have said they’d like to read the book twice. I suppose this could be a good thing or bad thing. Also, Rashomon problems–getting contrasting viewpoints on the same basic stories right.
I’m not sure about the unreliable narrators. Unreliable to whom? It’s not like the facts of the story are really proving anyone unreliable. It’s more about how the reader might view the facts. If they view the facts one way, x is unreliable. If they view them another, y is unreliable.
As I was reading your novel, marveling at the way you conducted your small orchestra of voice, I couldn’t help thinking about how Hill Street Blues essentially invented multiple storylines, now a staple of television series as different as Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Californication.
Yes, Hill Street did do that. And yes, working on that show with so many storylines probably did give me a certain comfort level with multiples voices. One thing you have the potential to get is an atmosphere that’s more than the sum of the parts. You could also get simply chaos, of course. But if it works right, there’s an unstated bonus. As it’s sometimes said, “a whole world” is created.
There is a dialectical relationship between your characters and the city of Berlin, which functions as a fourteenth character in the novel. Does the city shape the characters, or the characters the city?
I don’t hold myself out as an expert on the city. There is, however, a narrow slice of it that I was exposed to, perhaps inadvertently deeply, and that slice had, among other things, in my understanding of it, a strong mixture of death and Eros, two things traditionally intertwined. I think that ethos of death and Eros, whether I’ve imposed it on that slice of the city or correctly interpreted it, is reflected in the book’s characters. It seems to me in these equations that the city provides the history and the characters provide the present. Roughly speaking, anyway.
No place has rehashed its past as Berlin has, and yet far from settling the past, the rehashing keeps it alive. In a sense, my characters are part of that rehashing. Some seem to sacrifice their lives for it.
The story of the Jews has always centered on exodus and exile. Berlin Cantata features remnant Jews, secret GDR Jews , Soviet Jews – and raises important questions about Zionism, military occupation, and the fate of the Palestinian people. Berlin and Jerusalem have both been divided cities.
I had never thought before about this similarity of division. But I think you must be onto something, because it reminded me that when I was in law school, many years ago, my third year paper was a proposal for the internationalization of Jerusalem. It was idealistic and hopeless. My teacher sent it off to the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. So the attitude expressed by the character of Franz Rosen in the book, of wishing to do something to compensate for Middle East injustice, has been with me for a long time.
On the subject of exodus and exile: not to get too fancy about it, but the world seems awash in exiles these days, you can be an exile even in your own house, in your own mind, and so on. Negotiating the terms of exile, finding a way to live with others when no one’s really at home: this seems to me like a challenge for us.
You did not start writing novels until you were sixty years old. Do you prefer writing novels and short stories to screenwriting, and what do you see as the essential difference(s)?
Actually, I didn’t publish a novel till I was sixty. When I was young, I wrote several drafts of things. I came back to fiction a) because I always meant to; b) because I could see that, while it was a fine marriage while it lasted, the things I had still to express would not be anything that the television industry itself was likely to want to express, particularly in the specific terms in which I would want to express them, and I didn’t want to express them in any other than my particular terms, for fear that they would come out as lies; and c) I could afford to. One good thing about TV for a writer if you’re lucky is that you can amortize a few good years over a lifetime of otherwise penurious labor. Another good thing is that, like journalism, it’s a gaping, demanding maw that forces you to write, that isn’t interested in excuses.
One big difference between a screenplay and a novel, which becomes more obvious when you actually have to do it: you don’t have to know nearly as much to write a screenplay; you’ve got these wonderful actors to fill things in for you and they don’t even want to be told too much what to do. Another big difference: film is not very good as an abstract medium, at least not as it’s developed so far. Its great trump card–its apparent naturalism–is actually a huge limitation as well. I like film, but if I had one vote, it would be for books, despite how much has been already rung out of them over the centuries.
When you wrote for Hill Street Blues, you recruited your roommate at Yale, David Milch, who later went on to create NYPD Blues and Deadwood, as well as Big Apple, and Luck, featuring Dustin Hoffmann, (which was cancelled earlier this year before it found its audience). Are you still in touch with Milch, and do the two of you have plans to work together again?
Actually I did have lunch with David, two weeks ago, and we did talk about whether we might ever work together again. But who knows?
What are you working on now?
A love story. Though I suppose I should add: ask me again tomorrow.