The subtitle of An Ambulance Is on the Way, Jonathan Wilson’s globetrotting new collection, is “Stories of Men in Trouble.” One of these men finds himself trapped at home for the summer in a Northeastern suburb; another, on a stifling car trip in Israel, is wedged between his razor-tongued mother and Christian girlfriend; still others (and even a few women) get stuck for reasons of their own. Born in Britain, Wilson teaches at Tufts; his novel, A Palestine Affair, about a painter from London who witnesses a murder in Jerusalem during the Mandate, is now out in paperback. He is also the author of the novel, The Hiding Room, the short-story collection, Schoom, two critical works on Saul Bellow, and is writing a book about Marc Chagall for the Nextbook/Schocken Jewish Encounters series.
A Palestine Affair involves a painter, and there’s also a woman painter in “Fundamentals.” Why do you write so much about art?
Well, my wife is a painter and, even before I met her, I had a kind of consuming interest in art. It’s a convenient displacement for a writer, so you don’t have to write about writers. Writers are sedentary. Artists have interesting studios and they’re physical—they move, they work with their hands. It’s far more interesting than just sitting at a desk typing at a laptop.
The allusions you make to art almost give your work a classical flavor.
In “Fundamentals,” the woman painter talks about how not many people pay attention to painting anymore. Maybe I still have a sort of conservative attraction to painting as opposed to, say, video art or installations, though I’m interested in that too.
Even when you’re not reaching very far back, many of the stories draw on historical moments—9/11, the death of Princess Di, the first Gulf War.
I’m always interested in how big history affects little people. Rather than writing a novel about Napoleon or something, I’m interested in how regular people are affected by these large historical events. Then those people have to deal with the challenge of these huge events that are shuffling them this way and that. In the stories, the large historical events are more distant. One of the stories is written post-9/11, and it’s really about how people who are not directly affected by the event are nevertheless profoundly affected in the way they begin to think about the vulnerability of their lives. And the same with the title story, where the male-female relations are intensified by Princess Di’s death.
What about A Palestine Affair? Is Bloomberg based on a real painter?
He’s a composite of a number of painters. But certainly the original ghost who hovers is the Anglo-Jewish artist David Bomberg. At least he draws a lot from him, and Bomberg was in a show at the Whitechapel Gallery, with Modigliani and the others. And the murder is also based on an actual event, which was in Israel quite well-known, the de Haan affair, which happened more or less as I describe it. Though David Bomberg didn’t have anything whatever to do with the murder of de Haan. He didn’t find his body.
I wondered if you were drawing on Leopold Bloom at all.
Somebody pointed out to me afterwards that Bloomberg’s wife’s name is Joyce—you know, Joyce and Bloom—but it didn’t even cross my mind.
And also there was Nick Bloom, in the story “Fundamentals.”
Oh gosh, I forgot about that.
There’s also a Leopold Bloom impersonator in “Last Light.” And A Palestine Affair is set in 1924, about two years after Ulysses would have first been published.
I’ve never really thought of Joyce as a very big influence on my work. I suppose, when I wrote “Last Light” that somehow Dubliners was floating around in the back of my mind, and of course intellectual people also say Joyce wrote the great Jewish novel. And less in terms of formal experimentation and more in terms of his sort of radical openness and creation of this fascinatingly grown-up and human Jewish character.
The novel feels contemporary and relevant, even though modern Jews tend to read everything through World War II.
You can’t really understand what’s happening without a strong sense of the early start. That’s a fascinating period in the history of Palestine and Israel. I grew up in England, so I’m interested in British-Jewish relations. It’s a time most people are unfamiliar with. They’re familiar, say from Masterpiece Theatre, with the British in India, but not in Palestine. The British are out there, they’re buck-shooting and hunting jackal because there are no foxes. The whole panoply of colonial effects is present in Palestine in 1924 as it was in India.
Did you work on An Ambulance Is on the Way at the same time as A Palestine Affair?
Those stories probably cover a ten-year period. And I wrote the novel also in that period. I began the novel quite a long time ago but put it aside for a while and then went back and finished it. “Sons of God” is post-novel, but “Mother With Child” predates the novel significantly.
I’m interested in the way you use humor. Parts of A Palestine Affair are very funny. An Ambulance is on the Way has some real pathos in it but could be classified as a funny book.
I’m interested in carrying a dark subject in a light basket, for example in “Sons of God” and in the last story, “Fundamentals,” which is why I framed the book with those. I was trying to take on serious stuff about fundamentalism and its dangers. But to carry it lightly. In that sense, I was very influenced by Grace Paley, for her economy of expression and her ability to take on tragic subject matter but present it in a light and ironic fashion. Obviously, A Palestine Affair doesn’t have the veneer of lightness although there are comic moments. And, I hope the stories aren’t just light.
In the title story in the collection, there’s a quirky old guy who writes a Holocaust memoir that turns out to be really boring.
The narrator is plagued by this relative who is driving him nuts, but at the same time underneath it is terrible darkness and this unspeakably awful story. In the end, he goes to the post office and mails the manuscript off. He feels he has to do something. Underneath is, I think, a meditation on guilt and responsibility.
In the same way, the stories about suburban life will often dovetail or wind down into a reflection on human problems that can afflict anyone at any time. I think there’s a paragraph where someone says, “It had been a tough summer, people had discovered lumps where they weren’t supposed to be, and someone was dying.” Simply because it’s about the suburbs doesn’t mean that everything is bland and rosy, or that everything is about anomie and discontent. More than Joyce it was Flaubert who said the bourgeois life was perfect for the writer—he didn’t talk about the American suburbs of course—because you had to use your imagination.
Flaubert, Joyce—what about other influences?
It’s sort of an easy leap when there’s a Jewish writer to say, “Oh, Bellow and Roth.” Saul Bellow, yes, I wrote about him when I was much younger at some length, and he’s a writer I’ve known for many years and somebody I admire enormously. I was thinking about this the other day, actually. I was talking to a friend of mine, a woman who’s a novelist, about how, if you’re a male writer, the critics always tend to pluck other male writers to say that those are your influences.
In my short stories, Grace Paley has been a far bigger influence on me. Two others may be the Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg, and I love Darcy O’Brien’s novel A Way of Life, Like Any Other. There are so many poets, writers, whose work touches mine in ways that I can’t begin to understand.
You mentioned that the stories and novels are different, stylistically. Is that organic or intentional?
I find novels more testing. Whenever I write stories I feel a kind of elation. They generally just arrive. They fall into my lap more easily. With novels you have to remember who’s going where, who went out of a door, what someone was doing a hundred pages ago. There’s more planning and difficulty involved. But now I’m done with historical novels. I am trying now to write a novel that is more an expanded version of one of my stories. But I’m not sure quite how to do it. It may be that in expanding a story you lose what it is that makes the story work. This new novel is set in the American suburbs. We’ll see what happens.