Wounded in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Yoram Kaniuk moved to Greenwich Village to become a painter. Nineteen and broke, he came to center a rarefied circle of fellow painters, musicians, writers, and actors—Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Willem de Kooning, Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, among others. Writes Kaniuk, “I was in the lives of these people by mistake.” Though he may have played a minor role, Kaniuk’s memoir, Life on Sandpaper, is an unforgettable telling of his New York decade, the 1950s. His newest nonfiction book, 1948, not yet translated to English, recently won the 2010 Sapir Prize for Literature. Not long ago, I spoke to Kaniuk about Life on Sandpaper, which was published by Dalkey Archive Press this February.
When did you begin working on this memoir?
In the seventies I used to write for a paper here in Israel, and every weekend I used to publish a story. I wrote many of these stories, not exactly in this form, and when I didn’t have any more true stories, I had to invent them. And then at the start of 2000, I started to work them into Between Life and Death [the memoir’s Hebrew-language title]. I didn’t know what it would mean to people here in Israel, but it was amazing how much the young people loved this book. It opened a door for me—for my novel The Last Jew, and for other books.
Today it seems that there are more Israelis outside of Israel than in Israel itself. Soldiers taking a gap year in Europe, in India, in Tibet; scuffling jazz musicians and installation artists in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn; Israelis “making the business” (in Israeli English) in Panama and Buenos Aires. There once was a stigma attached to this expatriation. When one goes to Israel, one literally “goes up,” or “ascends”—makes aliyah. When one leaves one is said to have “gone down,” or “descended”—yerida. Was there the same stigma associated with leaving Israel back in the 1950s, when you came to that other Jewish homeland, Greenwich Village?
The Israelis coming to America when I came, which was in 1951, were people who had fought in the 1948 war, which was a very tough war, the worst war Israel ever had; almost an entire generation was killed. We came to New York because we were never able to find a way, in Israel, of letting out the grief, the demons. Also, you have to remember that I had been wounded, physically. My first years in America, I didn’t think about Israel at all, I didn’t think about the war, I didn’t remember anything, I was completely in a daze. And later I understood that I had to have my autonomy. But I should say that many Israelis who were there with me in New York, or even in Los Angeles, eventually came back. Still there was a feeling that Israelis at that time didn’t know what their homeland was.
This memoir is unbelievable—literally unbelievable. You drank coffee with Charlie Parker, flirted with Billie Holiday, danced with Ginger Rogers. Did you realize when this happened that this was a remarkable life?
Not at all. I mean, we lived mostly in the Village, and on the Lower East Side, which wasn’t America. America started above Fourteenth Street. Where we were living, you know, all the painters were there, and the Village Vanguard, the Village Voice—the action was very different.
One of the most interesting transformations in the book is when you essentially give up painting for literature. You discuss the New York School of abstract expressionists—your friends de Kooning, and Franz Kline—who were painting down in the Village at the same time. I was wondering how you’d describe your paintings, and why you gave up painting.
When I came back from the war, I started to write stories. But no one in Israel wanted to publish them, because they were so bizarre. They liked my painting, however, and sent me to Paris to study. I started selling and all that, and then I came to America.
Were you painting abstraction then or no?
No, not at all—this is the whole point. I was against all that, and I had big fights about abstraction with Franz Kline. I always felt that the abstractionists were making wallpaper, not paintings. You know I sold 150 paintings in New York; I got good reviews in The New York Times. I wanted to paint like the German expressionists, or like Chaim Soutine, but I couldn’t, and all the time I wanted to write. I wrote so slowly, though, that I had to stop painting. And everyone hated me because they thought, Here he is, a new voice, giving up. I realized, by seeing all these painters with wives and mistresses and girlfriends, that one cannot be married to two people—I could not paint and write at the same time.
Besides being a Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Life on Sandpaper is also a sexual autobiography, and a primer on moving (you seem to move addresses every few weeks). Why so many women? And why so many apartments?
I’ll tell you what started the apartments: Sometimes I didn’t have money for a regular apartment, so I had to take a temporary room. I paid ten dollars per week or, at one place, eighteen dollars per month. The most expensive apartment I ever had was on Morton Street, and later when I met Joseph Brodsky, the great poet, he was living in the same apartment that I paid 60 dollars per month for, but he was paying 2,000 or 3,000 dollars. I was restless, I was crazy—this was ten years of madness. I had terrible depressions and was climbing the walls, and of course painting all the time, painting and painting and painting, and reading books, and studying English, and if you read my new book, about the 1948 war, just published in Israel, you’d understand everything.