First Person


A few weeks ago I travelled to Israel to give some talks. Along with invitations to universities I had been contacted by the United States Embassy in Jerusalem and asked if I would participate in an event that would be part of “the cultural outreach program” before President Obama’s visit at the end of March. At first the terms of my employment were loose: I could discuss any aspect of my writing or writing life that I chose. As I was born in London and only came to America when I was twenty-six, I thought I might discuss the seductive appeal that American novelists, especially Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, held for me when I was a young man and how perhaps, more than anything, it was reading their fiction which stirred my desires to move to New York and become, if I could, both an American citizen and an American writer.

The embassy thought this would be fine, but then someone higher up the ladder than the delightful and accommodating woman I had been dealing with decided to intervene. Would it be possible for me, in some way, to link my talk to the theme of “Great American Speeches?” I replied that while I had certainly admired and been impressed by President Obama’s Grant Park election victory speech, and while I had been thoroughly wowed by Aretha’s hat at the fist inauguration, I couldn’t really see how “Great American Speeches” had anything at all to do with my writing.

We returned to Plan A, but when I arrived in Israel I discovered that the English-language edition of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz had, under the broad heading “Obama-ba Festival,” publicized my talk as follows: “‘Being an American Writer: The Journey From Philip Roth to President Obama’ American author Jonathan Wilson talks (in English) about the effect that President Obama’s Grant Park Speech had on his life.

The venue for my talk was a Jerusalem café, a nice informal setting booked for the night by the embassy. Unfortunately, only a section the café had been designated as seating for those who wanted to hear how a political speech had changed my life. The other chairs and tables were occupied by regular denizens of the place who clinked their cups and saucers (and why shouldn’t they?) while in the background the espresso machine steamed and gurgled. The coup de grace arrived when the embassy people produced a life-size cardboard cutout of President Obama and set it behind my right shoulder. After my talk a number of people asked to have their picture taken with the cutout, sometimes with me, but mostly without. By cult of personality standards this was fairly tame. I had once visited the private statuary collection of the Texas billionaire Harlan Crow and seen his capitalism-triumphant collection of monuments to deceased dictators. There, I stood in his garden beneath Lenins, Maos, Stalins, and Ceaușescus that rose like redwoods to the blue libertarian sky. A weak approximation of monolithic power, the cardboard cutout of Obama nonetheless successfully dwarfed and reduced my human presence while I spoke until I was thoroughly attenuated.

As it happens, my personality had been placed under siege from the moment that I had left the United States and landed on foreign shores. In transit, in Toronto, on my way to catch my flight to Tel Aviv, I had been held up at immigration, “randomly selected” as the young man, a dapper Sikh working passport control informed me. I could not proceed with my fellow passengers and instead I was directed downstairs for further investigation. There, I waited in line, already anxious that the delay might cause me to miss my connection.

Unfortunately, when my turn came, I struck the wrong note. Trying to adopt an innocent, nonchalant air I repeated the encouraging news that I had been “randomly selected.” The woman behind the counter had a quick response, “There’s nothing random about immigration.” She reviewed my tickets and my U.S. passport (the only one I hold). Then she tapped away on the keyboard of her computer.

“You’re a sports writer,” she said, “You wrote a book about Sunderland.” (Sunderland is a Premier League soccer team from the northeast of England, near Newcastle.)

“No,” I said, “That’s not me, but I know that guy.”

I didn’t “know” the other Jonathan Wilson, but I was familiar with his books. From time to time I also wrote or blogged about soccer, but I had never published a book on the subject. I wrote novels, stories, essays, but the other Jonathan Wilson turned his attention, as far as I was aware, exclusively to soccer. His books were successful in the U.K. He was considerably younger than me, English, highly regarded. I admired his writing. There was certainly more information about him than me on Google, although a psychedelic folk musician Jonathan Wilson trumped us both.

The bottle-blonde Canadian immigration officer seemed stumped for a moment. Did they, I wondered, simply Google people as they came through? Is that all that the sophisticated security apparatus beneath the desk concealed? Was it all Wizard of Oz? And what had the other Jonathan Wilson done to get me flagged? Nothing, I was sure, except rent a room next door to mine in Kafka’s castle.

I was released, but as soon as I got out of random immigration I was stopped. Where was my baggage? “It went straight through from Boston,” I said.

“It has to come off the plane, you’ve been flagged.”

An X-ray, a search, and an hour later I was back on my way. I barely made my flight, and perhaps it would have been better if I hadn’t, as twenty minutes after takeoff the guy seated across the aisle from me decided to remove something from his overhead compartment and his suitcase fell out and landed on my head. As we crossed Newfoundland the stewardess gave me a bag of iceberg to hold on my egg-size bump. “Are you okay?” she asked. “I feel a bit dizzy,” I said, and in that moment it is quite possible that I believed myself to be the other Jonathan Wilson.

When, in 1883, ten-year-old Willa Cather first encountered the open-range prairie of Nebraska, no trees, no telephone poles, no fencing, no nothing, she experienced what she later described as “a kind of erasure of personality.” Geography can do this to you, but so too can history. D. H. Lawrence was convinced that the “old, stable ego” was gone after World War I. For Saul Bellow in Herzog it was World War II that dealt a deathblow to the salience of individual personality. Moses Herzog says of his father, “His I had such dignity,” but adds that what happened during the war abolished Father Herzog’s claim to exceptionality. One way or the other, it seems, we’ve been wobbly for quite a while.

One warm afternoon in Israel I decided to revisit 3 Bezalel Street in Jerusalem. From 1977–79 I had occupied a second-floor apartment there, in what I believed to be the most beautiful dwelling in the world. At the turn of the twentieth century the old stone house with a walled-in garden had been home to Boris Schatz, founder of Jerusalem’s secular, subversive Bezalel Art School. Boris’s son, Lilik, a sculptor and metalworker, was my landlord. He lived on the ground floor with his wife, Louise, a painter whose sister, Eve McClure, had once been married to Henry Miller. For a while in the 1940s, Lilik, Henry, and the McClure sisters had lived the boho life together in Big Sur. Lilik and Louise had helped Henry build a swimming pool. Lilik had once told me how he had inset tiles, shells, and coins all around the sides. “So beautiful,” Henry had said, “You can bury me in this.”  Henry had devoted a chapter to Lilik in his book My Bike and Other Friends.

My apartment belonged to Lilik’s younger sister, Zahara, a painter who was on an extended sojourn in California. On the floor below me there was one other tenant, Max, a retired sailor from the U.S. merchant marine. Every morning, Max, who walked with a seaman’s gait, watered the garden as efficiently as he had once swabbed the decks, and released the scent of oleander and roses to my balcony. Some nights in summer I dragged my mattress out and slept under the bright stars and the overhanging branches of a gnarled olive tree: cyclamen grew in the crevices of the balcony’s exterior walls and thick-stemmed pink geraniums twisted their heads in my window boxes.

Now, almost thirty-five years later, I stood before the wooden door in the wall that led to the secret garden. And there, set in stone, was a plaque that listed the names, dates, and occupations of the Schatz family members who had once lived in the house. Lilik’s bracket was particularly poignant, as he had died during my tenancy, and in the last months of his life Max and I had gone to a clinic to stockpile blood for him in preparation for a surgery that, sadly, never took place.

As far as I know, no one outside the Schatz family ever lived in the house on 3 Bezalel Street except for Max and myself. Of course, our names were not on the plaque—why would they be? The commemoration informed the passerby of significant individuals who had made vast contributions to the world of their home country’s art. It was not an inventory of those who happened to have lived at that address. And yet, reading the plaque, I might have been ten-year-old Willa Cather on Nebraska’s open range. Where was I? The question was not narcissistic (I hope) but rather evolved from an uncanny sense of absence. The house had once contained my physical presence, and I contained my memory of the house. If there had been no plaque I think I would have felt no inkling of erasure. On the other hand, it was an enormous relief not to be on the plaque; after all, most frequently only the homes of the dead are marked this way.

But what about Max? In the evenings we often played Scrabble together. I didn’t have a phone and he let me use his. He held me together when I was falling apart. He told me about his life on container ships and how once, when his ship had developed some serious mechanical problems, the other sailors had wanted to dump him at a port: the only Jew on board, he was considered to be a bad-luck Jonah. Here he was, dumped again. And so Max Freedman, big-hearted old man of the sea who worked the container ships on the Pacific route from San Francisco to Java, also lived here from 1967 to 1982.

 Jonathan Wilson is the author of several novels and story collections. His most recent book is a biography of Chagall. Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in the fall. He is director of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University.