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Touchy Subject

Frederick Busch feared his novel Invisible Mending would upset readers. He didn’t anticipate his own discomfort.

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In June 1985, the Jewish Book Council presented its annual award for best fiction to Frederick Busch, for his novel Invisible Mending. Already a prolific writer of novels and short stories with a burgeoning reputation as a writer’s writer (high critical praise but middling sales), Busch had penned fiction mostly about rural and small-town America, a reflection of his life as an English professor in upstate New York. But this novel, his ninth, marked a departure. At the Jewish Book Council event, held at the New York Public Library on a hot and humid evening in early June, the 43-year-old author was nervous. “I sweated through a shirt and then a suit, and not only because of the heat,” he wrote of the occasion in the afterword of the novel’s 1997 edition. “I was certain that at any moment I would be denounced as a spy for wrongful thinking, as a traitor, insufficiently Jewish, unreligious, the child and then the father with presents under a Christmas tree!”

Directly before the podium in the audience’s front row sat Roger W. Straus Jr., the esteemed, ascot-wearing founder of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, home to many of literature’s most celebrated writers. Straus had published Busch’s two previous novels, in 1979 and 1983, but on the eve of publication, with the manuscript edited, Straus read his author’s latest work and refused to publish it, declaring the book, as Busch wrote in the afterword, “bad for the Jews.”

Frederick Busch

The novel was then called The Outlaw Jew. The story of a Brooklyn-born, non-practicing Jew who calls Judaism a cult of the corpse-count,” it was to be, Busch wrote, “a novel of tensions—the Jew who wasn’t much of a Jew but was one nevertheless.” It would also be Busch’s most personal attempt to come to terms with his religious tradition. “The belief I saw, in much modern Judaism, as in much modern Christianity, was about death,” he wrote in the afterword. “One prayed to a dead god, or one prayed to six million dead, I thought, and I wished to do neither.”

As the story opens, the protagonist—a book editor known simply by his last name, Zimmer—is separated from his wife, the non-Jewish Lillian. “Listen: sometimes in their lives people come to the edge of something,” Zimmer explains. “At forty years of age, in the eightieth year of the century, in the twelfth year of my marriage, in the eighth year of my child, that’s where I was.” One night, he leaves his office amid the Christmas lights on Fifth Avenue and thinks he hears an old lover, Rhona, calling his name.

Eighteen years earlier, in the 1960s, he and Rhona, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, had lived together in the Village. On their first date, Rhona urged Zimmer to follow an old blind man she suspects of being a Nazi war criminal into a restroom to determine his religious tendencies at the urinal; at a restaurant, they set up what Zimmer calls “our command post for the persecution of old immigrants.” With Rhona as guide, Zimmer “was becoming a Jew. To hunt the persecutors, to be always aware of the awful past, to suspect all, to forgive few, and to be certain that a few wary Jews, perhaps the state of Israel, and one or two pro-Semitic goyim, were all that prevented eradication of all Jews everywhere by a world which wanted to devour them.”

Busch never learned precisely why the publisher thought his novel bad for Jews—”whether because it spoke differently about the Holocaust or for other reasons, I never knew,” he wrote. And a quarter of a century after the publication of Invisible Mending, it’s still hard to gain a clear understanding. Busch’s then-editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux was the young but already renowned Pat Strachan; now senior editor at Little, Brown, Strachan would not comment. Busch’s agent, Elaine Markson, who, according to Busch, relayed the “bad for the Jews” comment, says she doesn’t remember: “Well, it was Roger Straus, and he pulled it. I forget what the excuse was.” The two main characters in the drama have died; Straus in 2004, and Busch two years later.

David Godine, president of the small, eponymous Boston-based publishing house that bought the contract from FSG and published Busch’s novel (and gave it the new title, Invisible Mending), says, “Publishing is full of these little psychodramas, which only amount to nothing.” This one, he said, sounds in character for Straus, who could be emotional and capricious. “He would frequently call me in his Roger Straus way and say ‘I can’t stand this fucker any longer. You know, why don’t you take him on your list?’” In fact, Godine expresses no surprise that the two parted ways, no matter what Straus might have thought about this one particular book. “I can’t imagine two people less like each other than Roger Straus and Fred Busch.”

Raised on Park Avenue, the publisher came from a prominent and wealthy family. His mother was a Guggenheim; his paternal grandfather had been U.S. ambassador to Turkey and, as secretary of commerce for President Theodore Roosevelt, the country’s first Jewish cabinet member. Busch’s paternal grandfather, Sam Buschlowitz, was a carpenter and anarchist from Minsk who remembered Cossacks, as Busch once wrote, “riding through Russian streets, scything down Jews with their swords.” During one such raid, a very young Buschlowitz sought shelter in a synagogue, only to be refused entry by the rabbi. “He never forgave the rabbi, or any rabbi,” Busch wrote in the afterward of Invisible Mending. After immigrating to the United States, coming first to Detroit, then settling in Brooklyn, he and Busch’s grandmother, Dorothy, whom he never married, raised their children without any religious instruction; he forbid his two sons to have bar mitzvahs.

After serving in World War II, Busch’s father, a lawyer who shortened the family name, sought to distance himself from his upbringing, from “Brooklyn…the Yiddish of his parents,” as Busch wrote in A Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life. His father “wanted what was elegant, cosmopolitan, rich,” and he and his wife, a science teacher, also from Brooklyn, passed their assimilationist values onto Busch, a chubby child who joined the Boy Scouts, played stickball, and brought a half-dozen books home from the library every Friday night. His grandfather’s “skepticism and anger,” the writer explained, “had come directly to me and through the doubts of my parents.”

Zimmer’s life mirrors his creator’s—the surnames truncated after immigration, the boyhood in Brooklyn’s Midwood, the secular Jewish parents, the Lutheran college in Pennsylvania—and at one point in the novel Zimmer worries about losing his family history altogether. After his relationship with Rhona ends, Zimmer marries Lillian, a tall investment banker whose family—”alien beings with their golden hair and delicate cheekbones and with no hint of eastern Europe in their light eyes”—makes him fearful that he might lose what he suddenly realizes he carried: “Not Jewishness,” he thinks, “but the freight of all those squat and un-Americanized, Yiddish- and German- and Russian-speaking passengers in steerage on the foul dark boats that had come with sickening lurches to the harbor of New York.” This threatened inheritance—an experience of immigration and persecution that supersedes religion—couldn’t have been further from the privileged background of Roger Straus.

Busch likened the publication of Invisible Mending to appearing nude in public, and even before Straus stopped its publication the author was nervous about its reception. He worried because it contained “a kind of cruel peasant’s joke about a man who survived the Holocaust,” that it inveighed “against a kind of worship of death which sanctimony can engender.” He fretted that the title was brash, the material touchy—”you are not supposed to trifle with the Holocaust.” He thought of his friend Leslie Epstein, who had been accused of “trivializing” the Holocaust with the publication of 1979 novel King of the Jews (“because he understood and employed irony,” Busch said).

When the novel finally appeared, critics were, for the most part, generous. The Times‘s Anatole Broyard wrote that while Busch “offers us a hero who would try the patience of the American Civil Liberties Union, his book manages at the same time to be funny, sad, possibly true, and pretty well written.” And Jonathan Yardley, writing in the Washington Post, deemed the novel “beautifully constructed” and “richly textured.” He wrote, “Zimmer’s odyssey is psychological rather than physical, but he still travels quite a distance. Busch takes him there with a sure eye for emotional subtleties and . . . a handsome prose style. . . . Too few readers seem to be aware of it, but Frederick Busch is good, and his fiction matters.”

But at least one critic voiced discomfort similar to Busch’s fears. Novelist Norma Rosen, weighing in on the novel for the Times‘s Sunday Book Review, dismissed Zimmer as an “inauthentic Jew,” which she defined, quoting Satre, as one of the “men whom other men take for Jews and who have decided to run away from the insupportable situation.” She asked: “At what ironic distance from himself does Mr. Busch want us to read about his character Zimmer, who must make farce of the Holocaust in order to rid himself of it?”

Busch soon left discussions of the Holocaust and Jewish identity behind. His twenty-eight books range from detailed domestic dramas to historically based fiction with Charles Dickens and Herman Melville as characters. (Many consider his short stories, for which he won a PEN/Malamud award for achievement in 1991 and which have drawn comparisons to Raymond Carver and Chekhov, his finest work.) Busch returned to the subject of the Holocaust in a novel only once more, in 2003′s A Memory of War, about a psychologist in Manhattan whose mother, a Jewish refugee from Poland, may have had a child with a German prisoner in England during the war. Although the author’s widow mentioned it among three of his books Busch liked best, it lacks the raw emotional punch of Invisible Mending.

That novel’s power—its irreverence, tension, humor, and inexorable confrontation with the personal and the historical—moved critics and readers, including the judges for the Jewish Book Council, precisely because it touched upon important questions about Jewish identity, not least for Busch himself. About that evening in June 1985 when Busch nervously accepted his honor, he later wrote, “I am afraid that I assumed a pious expression, a kind of nauseous self-renunciation, in an effort to clear any hint of victory from my face—although, I have to confess, I wanted to crow and flap my arms. There were the tensions that for me are this novel’s emblems.”

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Touchy Subject

Frederick Busch feared his novel Invisible Mending would upset readers. He didn’t anticipate his own discomfort.

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