An Interview with David Bezmozgis

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David Bezmozgis spoke to me over the phone from his home in Toronto. He has a kind, NPR-type voice, one that carries certain American inflections, but really comes alive when pronouncing Russian words. Midway through our hour-long conversation, his young daughters burst into his room in an explosion of laughter and affection. I greatly regret having to edit out their appearance, and Bezmozgis’s subsequent interaction with them, from the transcription that follows.

As for his writing: it is serious and good. Bezmozgis’s debut short story collection, Natasha, depicted the life of a Latvian Jewish émigré family in Toronto. His second book, The Free World, a sort of prequel, follows recently escaped Soviet émigrés from Riga, who are spending six months in Rome as they attempt to acquire visas to a viable port of emigration. They won him awards (Commonwealth Writers Prize, Governor General’s Award) and critical acclaim (The New Yorker, 20 Writers Under 40).

Bezmozgis’ latest book, The Betrayers, is a moral thriller that centers around 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a celebrated Soviet Jewish dissident turned disgraced Israeli politician. In a prose style that is understated, but always achieves what it sets out to do, Bezmozgis not only presents complex, endearing characters in dramatic situation, but also poses (and attempts to answer) difficult questions about how the individual can affect politics, and how politics in turn affects the individual. Aleksandar Hemon, Gary Shteyngart, Edith Pearlman and Joshua Ferris have all already praised it in no uncertain terms. 

I read The Betrayers straight through in one sitting as if it was detective fiction. Then I reread it because it was so affecting.

—Ratik Asokan  

 

I. LANGUAGE IS A PERSONALITY 

THE BELIEVER: Let’s start with The Betrayers’ first sentence: “A thousand kilometers away, while the next great drama of his life was unfolding and God was banging His gavel to shake the Judaean hills, Baruch Kotler sat in the lobby of the Yalta hotel and watched his young mistress berate the hotel clerk—a pretty blond girl, who endured the assault with a stiff, mulish expression.”

Your use of passive voice is striking. The politics occupies the first of the sentence, and Baruch arrives only in the second. It’s as if politics so powerfully affects his circumstances that it must be mentioned first. The passive voice is employed throughout The Betrayers. It seems symbolic of the way your characters live their life.

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: It’s hard for me to speak beyond that first sentence. You’ll have to quote me some other sentences.

BLVR: Well, in Natasha’s conclusion, Mark says, “By the time I got home I had already crafted a new identity: I would switch schools, change my wardrobe, move to another city. Later I would avenge myself with beautiful women, learn martial arts, and cultivate exotic experiences. I saw my future clearly.”

In The Betrayers, Tankilevich says  “To walk the kilometer was never pleasant,” rather than “It was never pleasant to walk the ten kilometers,” or “But in any season, even in the mildest weather, there was still nothing to enjoy about the trek,” rather than “There was nothing to enjoy about the trek, in any season, even in the mildest weather.”

DB: Yes, it’s deliberate. I think, perhaps, the way you phrase it is correct. In sentences like that, it would be assuming too much of the active voice, because they are victims of circumstances. I don’t know if I was conscious of it while writing. I don’t know if I feel comfortable confessing to it now, even in conversation. When you compare that with the last sentence in Natasha, the people’s situations are quite different, so their headspace is quite different. So it’s hard for me to say, without comparing dramatic moments in both books. But yes, I see a difference when you quote them like that.

BLVR: Francine Prose wrote that in The Free World, you were able to create sentences with “rhythm that echoes the ever-so-slightly stilted diction of someone who has almost but not entirely mastered a new language.” Is a similar thing—an attempt to capture a different culture’s mode of thinking—happening here with regard to the prominent passive voice?

DB: I still think it’s circumstantial. People everywhere feel differently at different times of their lives. Did you think the prose in The Betrayers was also filtered through another language?

BLVR: It reminded me of certain post-colonial novels: characters seem to talk, and engage with the language on the page (English) simultaneously.

DB: When writing dialogue, I hear it in both Russian and English, and try to find a language that combines the two. Which is an English that is informed by Russian speech.

BLVR:

It affects the humor too, doesn’t it?

DB: If you say. It’s a mentality, a way of phrasing things. Language is a personality as well. People are different when they speak different languages. The language I translate is Russian, but it’s also Russian-Jewish. You could spend a lot of time trying to isolate and identify it, but I’m just hearing it in my head. What sounds right, what I think my characters would say.

BLVR: So it’s something you do subconsciously?

DB: I believe I’m very conscious of exactly what I’m doing. I’m auditioning lines of dialogue, and I’m interrogating whether the lines would translate from Russian into English the right way. The English that results can perhaps seem somewhat more formal than colloquial, but not so formal as to feel academic. There’s a theatricality to it. It has a different sort of sound than it would normally have, a certain kind of structure and terseness that I’m usually looking for, that doesn’t reflect the way I normally speak, but that is a way of reducing language down to its dramatic essence, without at the same time feeling affected.

If I’m been described as being as ‘terse’ or economical’ that’s a consequence of it. It’s something I aspire to. I’m aware that it’s not exactly colloquial or idiomatic, even though there’s something of that that gets in there at well.

BLVR: Does this mainly apply to your dialogue?

DB: I imagine it’s everywhere.

II. “IF THEY ARE MORE PRAGMATIC THAN THE MEN, IT IS BECAUSE THEY ARE OBLIGED TO BE.” 

BLVR: Yes, even in close third, you can feel the differing textures of each character’s consciousness.

DB: Well, I think all writers attempt to do this. Especially if you’re writing about multiple characters, say men and women. What is the qualitative difference between a male interiority and psychology and a female interiority and psychology? How does one convey that? I certainly try. Again, it’s not for the writer to say whether the thing is successful or not.

BLVR: Women tend to behave more tenderly and logically in your books. The men often retreat into themselves, but the women engage with reality. 

DB: I think these ex-Soviet or Russian-Jewish women are tougher and that comes through. And if they are more pragmatic than the men, it’s because they are obliged to be. They have all the female responsibilities and all the male responsibilities.

BLVR: Strangely, it allows them to cultivate better relationships with people, to love more easily, and better.

DB: Well, in my experience of women, women have a greater capacity to articulate those sorts of things. Maybe women, even very pragmatic ones, are less guarded about showing emotions. I think there are differences between men and women. There is more of a softness to women than there is to men, especially when it comes to those more intimate emotions: feeling love, feeling familial connections. I think even with women who come across with a tough exterior, the interior is the same. I think you’ll find this with women around the word: some women, because of their circumstances, are forced to be tougher, forced to cultivate tougher exteriors, and I think in this novel, and in the Free World, and probably in Natasha, the women are tougher.

BLVR: In the titular story of Natasha, definitely. There’s the stark difference between Mark’s passiveness and Natasha’s proactivity. She even accuses Mark of doing too little.

DB: Mark and his uncle are the ones who don’t have the strengths of their convictions. They don’t feel moved to act in the same way as the women do. The women are the drivers of that story. In Natasha, as much as Mark would like to be the driver, there’s a certain component that he lacks, that Natasha has, that her mother has.   

III. “EVERY BOOK IS A REACTION TO EVERYTHING YOU’VE WRITTEN BEFORE.”

BLVR: The Betrayers has been labeled as a ‘moral thriller’ and the plot does move swiftly (I read it with the attention I usually reserve for detective fiction). Yet none of the suspense seems affected. Information is withheld from us because characters are suppressing difficult memories. In a sense, we discover the “reveals” along with the characters themselves.

DB: When you write a book, you want to have fidelity to the character. Characters and their emotions guide the structure of the novel. The author is aware that there’s a certain amount of information she/he has to provide in order to satisfy the reader, knowing that she/he has set something up that must be paid off, but this payment must be made while maintaining fidelity to the characters.

If the fidelity isn’t maintained, the reader will think your structure is extraneous, or superficial, or that you’re trying to curry favor, or live up to the expectations of some sort of genre or structure.

BLVR: Was this structuring done in part as a response to The Free World? There you weren’t overtly tense about the Krasnaskys, because they could technically be safe in Rome for a long time.

DB: I think every book is a reaction to everything you’re written before, and most immediately to the book you wrote just before. In The Free World—I’d like to believe—within each chapter there’s a dramatic structure. It kind of picks up pace in the last third. In writing it, and in reading responses to it, I felt, yeah, okay, there are parts of it that didn’t move quickly enough.

No book is perfect. There are certain things I set out to do with The Free World and with The Betrayers that were entirely different objectives. I wanted to have a book that moves very quickly. But that’s an external thing. So yes: the swift plot was an objective. But it was also a writing challenge: to create a book that is shorter than The Free World (which is 350 pages; The Betrayers is 225) but retains a tension throughout. Obviously there are deeper objectives. That’s just the external, structural objectives, but I felt that would make sense.

BLVR: Do you give attention to critical reviews, or do you mainly value the feedback of readers you know?

DB: I think most of my readers said they really liked it. But yeah, I read reviews. I just thought that some of the things people said seemed justified in my mind, and a lot of things didn’t. I spent seven years writing The Free World. There are a lot of things I accomplished there that I’m very proud of, but I didn’t want to spend another seven years writing a book like that. And I also wanted to write a book that was very focused, that was very contemporary.

IV. A CLOSE, GRANULAR WAY

BLVR: There’s this amazing moment when Baruch first arrives in Yalta. He’s engulfed by memories of his last visit there, a family trip taken when he was still a child. Midway through his reveries he thinks of himself as Borinka (his childhood pet name) and then, in the same paragraph, in the very next sentence, he thinks of himself as Kotler (the adult name the world knows him by). For a fleeting moment the child and adult are engaging with the same memory.

DB: Well, there is that line where he thinks of the pet name, where he observes for himself how vulnerable he has become to his memory [“Not until he said it did he realize the extent to which simply identifying himself as Boris evoked a former self. A self very distinct from the man he had chosen resolutely to become”]. Some of that is, I think, the personal in any act of writing. You find yourself caught up: you start a sentence, and it becomes revelatory, not just of the character, but of you as well. You follow it for a while, that state of remembering, and all of a sudden, your own thoughts make you very emotional, out of nowhere: this engagement with the past overwhelms you. There’s a moment where that just happens in the novel, which is, I think, one of the strengths, the appeal of the novelistic form.

I don’t know any other art form where you can follow a thought that way, as it turns into an emotion, and look at it in such a close, granular way. Writing a novel, in an unplanned and unpredictable way, makes you engaged; it takes you into yourself, and it becomes something between you and the character for a moment, and then you move back into the structure of the book. I love those moments, because they are completely unbidden.

BLVR: They are certainly why I started reading.

DB: Well, there are different types of readers. But the writing we are talking about—which is labeled literary fiction—allows for such moments of revelation. People draw lines at which three things intersect: the character, the author, and the reader. They intersect in the recognition of a particular state that usually goes unremarked upon, or you never stop to reflect on, at least in such a focused way. All of a sudden, there it is, in a few sentences, and you’ve recaptured something of your own, of your own life, of your humanity. You could have gone the rest of your life never having thought about the moment, or formulated it in that way.

It’s incredibly satisfying. That’s the human part of being human: feeling those moments. That’s what joins you to me, and to some other reader, coming from very different places—that moment of identification. Here I am: a Russian-speaking Jew living in Canada, and you, an Indian ex-patriot living in San Francisco. All of a sudden we commune in this moment about a much older Russian political dissident. Yet it all happens. And if it’s true it’s remarkably satisfying.

BLVR: There’s another beautiful and intensely personal revelation that Kotler has when he wakes up on the second day to meet Tankilevich.

Well, what rigidity! Kotler observed with bemusement. Sometimes, after a run of such thoughts, he stood as if at his own shoulder, looking at a curious twin self. Who was the man who thought these thoughts? It came as something of a surprise. Not because of the thoughts—he didn’t dispute the thoughts—but their pitch. The pitch of a public man who expected his thoughts to have injunctive force in the world.”

This type of meditation on “ideology”: how a man wields it to change the world, but how it also (without his knowledge) changes him, seems to me to lie at the heart of the book.

DB: What can I say about that moment? It’s fundamental to what the book is. We all have some ideological quotient in ourselves. And I think it does guide who we are.

Two things are happening here: one, Kotler is aware of the ideological component within himself, he’s aware that it guides who he is. He’s also aware that unlike other people, he’s uncompromising about his ideology. And two: by virtue of being uncompromising, he has become a public man. I think having an uncompromising ideology eventually forces you out of the norm. Most people will reach a point where, whatever their ideology, they will relent, or conform, and that keeps them kind of in the general mass of people. And for those who find that they can’t, all of sudden they leave the general mass, they find that they become exceptions, and exceptional, and often this makes them public.

V. “NOTHING IS JUST THEORETICAL.”

BLVR: Leora (Baruch’s mistress) thinks about their relationship and concludes it’s impossible because “A saint loved the world more than a single person, while a man loved one person more than the whole world. And so only a saint could live with a saint. She was no saint, thought she had aspired to be.”

DB: I think the act of writing the book was trying to find a way to formulate these things. When I started out, I couldn’t and didn’t have that formulation. But researching the book, thinking about the book, that for me was the driving question, aside from all the political considerations that are contemporary (or not contemporary). The fundamental question was: why are some people highly principled and willing to do anything for their principles, while most of us are not? And I was willing to not only ask, but also answer the question.

BLVR: Do you think the answer arrives when Kotler says, “The moral component is no different from the physical component—a man’s soul, a man conscience, is like his height or the shape of his nose. We are all born with inherent propensities and limits.”

DB: That’s the idea. It’s interesting to me how people will respond to the subject matter. Writing about Israel and Palestine always has been, and continues to be, provocative. But maybe the most provocative thing one can do—and I’m not the first one to do it—is to ask the moral and philosophical question: why are some people better than others? Why are some people more moral than others?

We are taught that we can be better than we are. But is there a limit to how good we can be? I think if the book is provocative in any way, it’s by asking this question. I thought about this question a lot, and spoke to some people who had been dissidents, who had been willing to sacrifice everything, and it occurred to me that such people possess a certain quality. Kotler feels like there’s a moral plug in his throat. That sort of feeling, having such a plug: all it would take is to say one word, sign one piece of paper, to rejoin his family, see his parents, escape the Soviet Union for Israel to see his young wife. And he couldn’t do it. So it wasn’t even the question of whether he wanted to do it; he couldn’t. And that’s a thing most other people in his situation could and would do.

BLVR: I’m a little surprised by your answer. Because, at the end, the reader is left not knowing what to think or who to side with. Instead of answers, it’s as if new questions have arisen.

DB: Well, that’s true. There’s no clear answer. Kotler proposes his answer. And Tankilevich, if you understand the circumstances of his life, it’s very hard to argue with him… Svetlana tells Leora she’s no one to judge, because she doesn’t know all the facts. And by the end, when Leora knows more of the facts, she feels quite different. At the end, she’s put into that position with Nina Semonovna where she really has to judge, and probably her judgment wouldn’t have been quite the same at the beginning of the book.

And then do we identify with her, or with Kotler, or with Tankilevich, or even with Nina Semonovna, who is herself put in a very difficult position?

BLVR: The Betrayers is a political novel, but on first reading I was most affected by the inner lives of each character, and by the evocations of love, and family, and aging, and sympathy and forgiveness (the old themes). On the second reading though, it becomes apparent how politics is constantly looming in the background. These people are being forced to act abnormally, to live the way they are living, because of politics. You seem to ask: how should a human live when thrust into a political situation?

DB: Well this is a situation where the personal and political aren’t divorced. A lot of us—in America, in Canada—have the privilege of living in a situation where we can divorce ourselves from politics. We hold heated political opinions, but rarely ever do we feel their consequences, whereas in other parts of the world, the two are not so easily divorced. So what was interesting to me in the book was: yes, nothing is just theoretical, but whatever these people think politically is going to affect them very strongly.

There are books where you can really see the moral question, which I think we answer every day for ourselves, in every interaction we have with people, to a lesser or greater degree. But this is what a dramatic art form does. It looks at the extremes. There are books like Darkness at Noon, which from the prose standpoint I don’t think is a perfect book. It has flaws. But for its time, it was very politically courageous. And a book like Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer is another one where the personal and political cannot be divided, and the moral question is both moral and mortal. And that to me is interesting. Incident at Vichy, one of my favorite Arthur Miller plays, is a play in which you look at all of the different perspectives of this moral question. And it isn’t so easy to decide which position is correct. Though we all do know who the people will ultimately venerate: people like Mandela, like Gandhi.

BLVR: Well, Gandhi’s sons didn’t hold such a high opinion of him.

DB: Exactly. To become a person like that, where you have a fidelity to something beyond your own family, to a nation, then of course, the people in your own family will suffer. It’s very difficult for that not to happen. You’re pulled away from your family so much, you’re making so many sacrifices, individual sacrifices: I’m going to go to prison for thirty years, I won’t see my children, but I will go, and by that I will deny my children a father, my wife a husband, for thirty years. For someone who takes a moral stance so strong it makes them public, inevitably the private will suffer. 

BLVR: In the essay that accompanies The Betrayers, you write “If a work of journalism is a solid structure made of acts, the novel is a moral and imaginative leap from atop the structure.” Your protagonist shares a life story, or rather a back-story, quite similar to that of famous refusenik Natan Sharansky. 

DB: Yes. Sharansky’s story was probably the biggest model for the book, but I met other dissidents like him: Hillel Butman,Alexander Paritsky, Yosef Mendelevich, Ida Nudel. I read their stories and tried to understand why they behaved the way they did.

Sharansky was especially interesting to me because he does go into politics so prominently. Because he also had these interesting contradictions in his family life. His wife became quite devout, and he was never devout. And that created dramatic and narrative possibilities, and allowed me to say something about politics in Israel today, and the direction the country is taking, rather than how things were thirty or forty years ago, when a man like Kotler was risking his life to go to Israel. The country has changed. It’s not as secular as it used to be. Religious Zionism is a bigger influence today that it was forty years ago, and it changes the direction the country can take, and certainly complicates the likelihood of a peace settlement, which many people would like. So, because of both Sharansky’s political involvement and his family, which I use as a model, I found it very interesting. And Sharansky has also written not just memoir (a number of these refuseniks have written very good ones) but a few books that articulate his political and ideological positions.

BLVR: George Bush even endorsed one.

DB: Yes. The Case for Democracy. And it’s very interesting to see someone’s political and moral thinking articulated so well. I found it very useful. Some of it finds its way into my book, and some of it…well, the book obviously becomes its own thing. Kotler derives from, but is different from Sharansky. Part of the pleasure of fiction is to make that jump. In his case, I give that man a mistress, and take him to Yalta, and have him confront the person who denounced him thirty years earlier. None of this happened to Sharansky. But he did provide a biographical, moral and political template that was useful to me.

 

BLVR: You do screenwriting as well. Has that made dialogue writing (for your books) easier?

DB: Nothing is easy in writing. I don’t think for anyone. But dialogue is probably what comes most naturally to me. So, for that reason, I’m well suited to writing screenplays. A friend read The Free World, and told me that I write dialogue well. So I decided to write a book with a lot of dialogue and see how that went.

BLVR: I read somewhere that you were a big Pink Floyd fan. What’s your favorite Pink Floyd song?

DB: Pink Floyd! It’s true. I loved them as a teenager. Well, that’s a difficult question… I’m just going to say Time. It’s a very philosophical song.

Ratik Asokan is a freelance writer based in New York. He writes about literature, film, and photography. You can read all his work here.